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As foreigners move in, Serie A strongmen fade away

November 4, 2013

ROME (AP) — The late Giovanni Agnelli used to wake up his Juventus players with friendly phone calls at the crack of dawn — just to see how they were doing.

Massimo Moratti wept with joy when Inter Milan won the Champions League in 2010, emulating his father’s success as the team’s head nearly half a century earlier.

At AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi has been known to dictate lineups and even formations to his coaches.

The Agnelli, Moratti and Berlusconi families have been the face of Italian soccer for decades.

Now, though, with a group of Indonesian entrepreneurs taking over Inter Milan, Serie A leader Roma already controlled by Americans and Berlusconi deep in legal troubles, the high-profile strongmen at the top of Italian soccer are fading away.

With crumbling stadiums, poor attendance and repellant outbursts of racism, Serie A clubs no longer attract the world’s best players.

Once home to Diego Maradona and Marco van Basten in their primes, Italy is now behind the English Premier League and German Bundesliga, losing its fourth Champions League berth.

Great Italian clubs are struggling to compete with better-financed foreign rivals. Paris Saint-Germain acquired Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Berlusconi’s Milan after the 2011-12 season and Edinson Cavani from 2013 Serie A runner-up Napoli last summer.

In the hands-on, family-run world of Italian soccer, the arrival of aloof, business-minded foreign owners has been a culture shock.

Traditionally, club presidents — not coaches — were the faces of teams. They answered to the media for each result. They were seen as fans, not pure businessmen.

That’s still true at Juventus, controlled by the Agnelli family of auto industrialists since 1923. The Agnellis are considered Italy’s Kennedys. They control Fiat and Ferrari.

Beside his early morning phone calls, Giovanni Agnelli also bestowed nicknames on his favorite players. The most memorable was “Pinturicchio” for Alessandro Del Piero, likening the undersized player to the Renaissance artist known as the “little painter.”

Yet even after winning the last two Serie A titles, the Turin club speaks openly about possibly having to sell one of its prized assets, 20-year-old midfielder Paul Pogba.

“If a huge offer came in for Pogba we wouldn’t be able to hold on to him,” Andrea Agnelli, Giovanni’s nephew who took over as Juve president in 2010, recently said. “Italian football has pretty much become a transit destination.”

At Roma, the Sensi family ceded control two years ago to four Boston-based executives who don’t speak Italian and fly in only every other month or so.

Franco Sensi, the oil tycoon who presided over the club’s third and last Serie A title in 2001, was a fixture at Roma matches until he died in 2008. Then his daughter Rosella took over and she, too, never missed a match, nor hesitated to stand up for the club after victory or defeat.

While the new owners have a more hands-off approach, Roma won its first 10 matches this season — a Serie A record — before Sunday’s 1-1 tie at Torino and leads the standings.

At Inter, the new owners are Indonesian entrepreneur Erick Thohir and two associates. They take over from the Moratti family that has deep roots in Milan life but which couldn’t resist the offer to sell.

Ever the fan, Moratti realized that Inter needed foreign capital to remain competitive. Moratti will retain a minority stake and could be named honorary president once Thohir formally takes over.

“I feel relieved. I’m leaving the club in good hands,” Moratti said. His father, Angelo, was owner during the team’s early glory years in the 1960s, when Inter won the European Cup twice.

Thohir is already part owner of the Philadelphia 76ers and D.C. United. He is chairman of the Mahaka Group, which has business interests in media and entertainment.

Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men and a former three-time premier, still owns Milan despite occasional media reports over the past few years that he’s considering selling a stake to foreigners.

But after the 2011-12 season, Milan sold nearly all of its top players, sending Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to PSG.

And as his political fortunes have waned and his legal troubles mounted, Berlusconi has allowed his daughter, Barbara, to take an increasingly important role within the club.

Slowly but surely, the era of all-powerful Serie A patriarchs is ending.


Follow Andrew Dampf at http://twitter.com/asdampf

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