Liverpool’s meeting with Roma is a landmark occasion for both clubs, symbolising their revival both at home and abroad after knocking out two of the favourites.
Less obviously, but maybe more significant for football as a whole, this semi-final is also a landmark for a style of management and a football business model.
Fans, in general, suspect the motives of business consortia taking control of their club, especially when they have other interests. Naturally enough, they think it’s just an investment, with little commitment to the club or its traditions, and with the risk of assets being stripped out and then a further sale to the highest bidder.
Both Liverpool and Roma have been through that sort of experience in the recent past, Liverpool under the Hicks-Gillet regime, Roma during the chaotic implosion of Franco Sensi’s oil company Italpetroli in 2009-10. The Sensi family — Roberto was succeeded by his daughter Rosella — had been in charge of Roma since 1993, presiding over one of the more successful periods in the club’s history, but the success was built on sand, or rather Italpetroli’s mounting debt.
Roma had to be sold off and the eventual buyer was a consortium led by Thomas DiBenedetto, president of various Boston investment companies, and also a partner in Fenway Sports Group, who took over Liverpool after the departure of Hicks and Gillet. Soon afterwards, DiBenedetto relinquished control of the club to James Pallotta.
Pallotta is the key man in the consortium of different interests that now own the club. It’s a much more complex arrangement than Liverpool’s with FSG, with no-one controlling an absolute majority of shares, but Pallotta is the driving force.
Like FSG, he has a stake in a big Boston sports club, in his case the Celtics, basketball, rather than the emblematic Boston baseball team, the Red Sox. His interest in football only began with the takeover; in fact, he admits he thought it was “the worst sport in the world” when he replaced DiBenedetto.
Understandably, that did not endear him to the Giallorossi fanbase, who tend to think that football is the only sport in the world. So, there have been times of tension over the past five years, when Pallotta evidently had doubts about how much intensity he could take.
The fans were doubtful about the buying and selling of players and, just as at Liverpool in the early days of FSG ownership, there was a scent of Moneyball in the air. Roma are way behind Europe’s leading clubs in terms of finance and developing new sources of income, posting just short of €172m (€196m) in operating revenue last season (excluding transfer deals and taxation), less than half Liverpool’s €424m (€484m) equivalent income.
This was one major factor behind the sale of their player of the year, Mohammed Salah, to Liverpool last summer and, as recently as January, there was a serious possibility of Edin Dzeko being sold to Chelsea, just as their other Bosnian star Miralem Pjanic had been sold to Juventus.
As it is, two of Roma’s better young defenders, Antonio Rudiger and Emerson Palmieri, have moved to Stamford Bridge, which makes the team’s good defensive record under their new coach Eusebio Di Francesco even more remarkable.
In March last year, the club accounts revealed that Roma had held back salary payments for November and December 2016 and, while the current accounts show an improvement, the club is still in the red.
Behind the scenes, however, the business model has been changing, just as Liverpool’s changed after John Henry realised that the standard Moneyball approach was much less suited to football than baseball, particularly with the constant inflation of Premier League wages and transfer fees.
Pallotta’s backroom group is focusing more on computer analysis of players and opponents, using methods developed by an American data team, but the more significant change is likely to be away from the pitch. There was no commercial or digital team or a TV channel before Pallotta arrived. Having achieved those things, the project now is to capture a much wider group of fans who associate with the club, even if they may not be active Roma supporters, and increase worldwide income.
Roma as a brand name is potentially up with Paris, Milan and Madrid but marketing has trailed behind the leading European clubs. Linked with that is the proposed new stadium. Like Liverpool, the club wants to expand capacity, but even though the Olimpico is iconic, and in a great location, they have to move away from sharing a rented stadium and build a ground of their own, if Pallotta’s business aims are to be realised. The supporters are not convinced, and the sour comments of Walter Sabatini, Pallotta’s previous director of sport, have stirred the pot.
“Roma has three centres of power: Boston, London and Trigoria,” said Sabatini after leaving the club. At Trigoria the most vocal groups of fans (and Roma has a few) claim Pallotta’s revolution should have achieved more in seven years than three second places. Lack of silverware has cast doubt, even as the club has achieved its best result in Europe for 34 years.
So, while this is a big match for Liverpool, it is huge for Roma. Some fans queued for two nights for tickets for the second leg. The belief is there, but it may be fragile.