Second coming

Bologna have been taken over by Americans. Matthew Barker assesses whether this heralds a new era in Italian club ownership

Earlier this summer, after three years in Serie B, Bologna won promotion back to Italy’s top division. The celebrations were two-fold; not only was there success on the field, but off it a new takeover deal was announced just as the season was coming to a close. Joe Tacopina was the public face of an American consortium that paid €20 million (£16m) for an 80 per cent share of the club, with current owner and president Alfredo Cazzola set to cede the remaining 20 per cent in August 2009.

However, in among all the excitement surrounding the brave new world of calcio all’americana, dissenting voices could be heard, dismissing Tacopina as Mr ­Farlocco (fake). The problem was that the Brooklyn-born lawyer had been photographed just weeks before waving a Roma scarf, part of a group bidding for the ­giallorossi headed by international ­financier George Soros.

The Sensi family, who have owned the capital club since 1993, are some €370m in debt. In March, representatives from Inner Circle Sports, an American investment bank that was involved in the Gillett-Hicks takeover of Liverpool (and are currently overseeing the move to Stanley Park), arrived in the Eternal City to meet up with directors from Italpetroli, the company owned by the Sensi family.

Soros duly tabled a €220m bid in April, but the figure fell short of Italpetroli’s expectations. With fan groups impatient at the club’s reluctance to sell (patron Rosella Sensi actually had to hire body­guards at one stage), Soros upped his bid to €280m, this time with Tacopina (Roma scarf and all) on board. Things looked promising again; “Soros: uno di noi” (Soros: one of us) graffiti appeared on walls across the city and the United States’ flag flew on the Curva Sud. Then, with a deal apparently close to completion, stories came through of a bid worth more than €400m from an unnamed Middle Eastern consortium. Unimpressed, the Americans told Roma to take it or leave it. To widespread disbelief, the Sensi ­family left it.

The financiers returned back across the Atlantic, but Tacopina stuck around and quickly resurfaced at Bologna. Miffed at those farlocco jibes, the one-time minor-league wrestler explained he had simply been working for Soros (“He wanted to buy Roma, not me”) and explained how the deal came shuddering to a halt thanks to that “mythical” offer, later said to have been made by the royal family of Dubai. Bologna, he claimed, had always been in his sights. He was moving to the city with his family and leaving his law practice behind. With four backers involved, the rossoblù had been targeted as the perfect investment; a well run, prestigious club with plenty of scope for “growth opportunities”. The plan is to be in the hunt for the Scudetto within five years with, initially at least, a softly-softly approach on the transfer market (€22m is thought to be available for buying players).

Cazzola had been sounding out options for a new stadium complex outside the city. The local council, which owns the Renato dall’Ara, the club’s current home, strongly opposes the idea (Bologna actually signed a 30-year lease with the council in 1998). Tacopina has stated that a new ground is not a concern “at least for the moment” and will doubtless be awaiting the collective negotiation of media rights, starting in 2010 (a portion of revenue from the new deal has to go towards renovating stadiums).

Improving merchandising and match-day revenue (including a hike in ticket prices) are said to be the first priorities. Italy is seen as an underdeveloped market and the parallels are there to be drawn between calcio and English football in the 1980s. Moving in now makes sense for the Americans, with an equal share of broadcasting rights coming soon and a move towards clubs finally taking over ownership of grounds. Soros buying into Roma would have been the game’s biggest shake-up since Silvio Berlusconi took over Milan and it surely can’t be too long before foreign investors are again sniffing around the Olimpico. Meanwhile, Bologna, one of Italy’s wealthiest cities and a place blessed with a healthy dose of scepticism, is awaiting the start of the new season with some apprehension.

From WSC 259 September 2008