In Derby della Capitale week, Roma chairman James Pallotta sat with the club’s official website and released ‘The Big Interview’ here.
It’s been a while since the president spoke at full length. He brought a mixture of bullishness and cognizance, from nearly a decade at the helm of Rome’s most cherished club. We scrutinize the interview highlights in a very CdT way.
“One of the most frustrating things for me has been a shortage of business talent in European football and finding really good people. I’ve found that it can be tough to find people from outside Italy to come and manage inside Italy, so the pool in Italy is naturally smaller, but I think we finally have a great team from that point of view. For example, if you look at our social media and what we’ve done in the media area with Roma Studio, it’s been totally unique.”
No real arguments from me here. Working in Italy is a mixture of accepting the money is always leaving, and politics are set up so that no one can agree on what to do about it. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds, and there are upsides. But you have to really want to make a schedule of relaxing, to enjoy the work life here.
And the Roma footballing scene has never been flush with money, either. There’s no major car manufacturer, telecoms giant or insurance conglomerate to which the club can tie its commerce. But Rome is Rome, and a ton of people want to visit at least once in their life.
There aren’t many football clubs in many cities who can say that. Less than a handful, even. That’s exactly that Pallotta wants to exploit.
As for football itself, the sport is rife with contradictions between how it’s covered and who’s actually tuning in to watch. Despite that, Roma TV always comes out balanced analysis after games, and the social media with fresh skits.
They’re well aware of how people talk about Roma on the web, turning it into irony at every chance. Lest we take ourselves too seriously.
The gluttony of TV channels exclusively dedicated to calcio lives on in full saturation no matter where you are in Italy, and 83% of Italy-based fans claim they rely on TV to keep up to date with the footballing world in a country that’s notoriously internet-averse.
But the lost audience from over ten years ago doesn’t looking like coming back in droves anytime soon to matchdays.
Back in 2009, despite Calciopoli and major law changes to matchdays because of riots in Sicily that saw both police officers and fans killed two years earlier, over half the country (56%) considered themselves a football fan, casual or otherwise, extrapolated from a Demos-Coop survey. The same observatory send out the same survery in 2013, and football following in Italy had fallen to barely over one third (36%).
A Findomestic-Doxa survey in the autumn of 2018 claimed just 5.5% of Italy-based football fans surveyed had intentions of kicking off this campaign as a season-ticket holder with their club, and a further 29% were happy to subscribe to pay-TV; watching the game at home or a friend’s house.
“Things like ticketing haven’t been managed that well in the past but now we finally have ticketing going in the right direction.”
What were the reasons for staying away from going to the stadium?
28% of Italy-based fans said Serie A tickets were too pricey, 24% said stadia were too far away and 11% just plain don’t like the violence, racism andthe ultras’ atmosphere.
On the travel front, there have been encouraging signs that life in calcio still beats a drum, looking at how the Milanese clubs have kept (and even increased) public transport access to their stadium for their fanbase. Everyone is looking to copy that.
By the end of last season, Inter and Milan had topped the Serie A attendance figures for 18 out of the last 20 seasons. The only exceptions in the other two seasons? Roma’s Stadio Olimpico. Both in 2014/15 (the season when Antonio Conte left Juventus - proving we weren’t the only ones believing Roma were set to takeover the league) and 2000/01 (when Roma won).
Then came the Curva Sud staying away because of the plexi-glass barriers, and the Milan clubs took back over the biggest attendances in the land.
The attendance figures hold clear for Pallotta’s regime: It’s not just the f*cking idiots to clear from the stadium. Or building a new one with transport links. Or hiring ex-Barcelona commercial ticket directors to re-do the ticketing, even though those are all important moves.
To get more fans watching, you have to give them something worth following. A trophy challenge.
“I think in the last few years, if you take it as a totality, I think we’ve been a top 20 club. On the football front, there’s probably two to three teams in Spain, one or two teams in France, two teams in Germany, that’s seven teams right there. Then you probably take six teams in the UK and that’s 13 and then you’ve got maybe five in Italy. So if you look at it that way, we’re certainly a top 20 team on the pitch. In some areas off the pitch, I think we’re definitely a top 10 club.”
Deloitte’s 2019 Money League report backs Pallotta’s view off the pitch. But claiming top 20 status on the pitch is more contentious. Is Eusebio Di Francesco the right man on the sidelines to lead Roma to the next level? People have asked this non-stop over the last one and a half seasons.
Maybe it falls upon us to measure the quality of play in the most tangible way possible.
We’ve got studies like 2007’s The Effect of Fatigue and Competitive Level that looked at the most and least successful Serie A style of play. The long and short of it (backed up in a very similar 2014 Bundesliga study) was that a competitive Serie A team needs to show:
- Its players run less without the ball - i.e. defend as a unit
- Its players run more with the ball - i.e control and move possession up the field
- The team has technically excellent players who can dribble with the ball at a speed of 19 kmph per hour or more i.e. the Mohamed Salahs of the world.
Roma’s current season sees her ranked 16th in Serie A for total kms covered. Short of having access to Wyscout, we can’t be firm about whether that’s good or bad, but certainly being in the lower quarter of the table is a promising start.
Still we’d need an in-depth view to break it down into whether that means Roma are running less off the ball (good) or just passing the buck and rushing the passes up the field while on the ball (bad). Only services like Wyscout can tell us (or an extremely excruciating naked-eye and stopwatch test watching matches back to back - don’t make us do it), and we don’t have full access to it.
But Roma’s 52.8% average possession is only good enough for 8th place this season, in the team possession rankings. Last season, Roma ranked 2nd in the league with 56.1% total team possession, and 18th in the league for average team distance covered per game (106.998 kms).
Last season’s team was the right mix of defending as a unit without the ball, and control of it. Roma were second only to Sarri’s Napoli in terms of qualitative play, explaining why some feel last season’s team was the one to build on rather than change.
But hey, Juventus just keep winning titles. There’s clearly more to the story on the pitch than throwing these two categories together.
Then there are squad factors this season beyond last summer’s mercato moves.
Did Roma’s quality of play go down because of player sales, or the continued absence of Diego Perotti and Rick Karsdorp this season? Then there are technical players like Marcano and Pastore who haven’t found their place in the first eleven, but were still signed to uphold this very standard.
It’s never quite as cut-and-dry as that, but everyone has their take on it.
People who vouch for Stephan El Shaarawy as having done a more than adequate job of replacing Perotti have a solid case.
SES doesn’t always run with the ball, and is often dispossessed in the final third when he does, but he ranked at the fastest player in the whole of Serie A last year - maintaining a 29.64 km/h run for a straight 3 seconds. The only player in Italy to do so, in 2017/18.
This season, SES had added even more goals and assists to that arsenal. He’s a high quality player who’s been saying all the right things off the pitch for the last two years, and he’s now maturing into the prime of his career on the grass, too.
SES ranks second in Roma’s team for xGChainBuildup (behind only Dzeko) and 1st in the team for Expected Assists over 90 minutes for any player that’s played more than 5 games (i.e. anyone besides Perotti).
Look, I’m a die-hard Perotti fan, and even I can say the one Roma player you don’t want to see sold this summer is Stephan El Shaarawy. Or lose him next summer for free when his contract expires.
Monchi should be clamoring for a contract extension as soon as possible. That’s the very same contract extension SES’ agent alluded to this week. And the same one SES says he’ll wait to the end of the season before discussing it.
“I’m 61 in two weeks and I still feel totally energised by this project. When I’m 75 years old, maybe I won’t be the guy sat here running it, but it’s not a short-term project for me.
I speak to a lot of fans and I know they understand what we’re trying to do. I even speak to some fans of other clubs and they say, ‘I might not like your club but you’re doing a great job for Italian football and we need this’. You will always get someone who will say, we’re only interested in trading players to make money, and I’m like, ‘Really? I haven’t seen a penny in my pocket from transfers’.
“I’ll be honest, [chants against me] used to hurt me. I can’t lie, I found it hard to understand at first. But now, I don’t give a shit because I know that what we’re all working so hard for is for the good of the club. When we lose, we all hurt but long before me, it was other Roma presidents being criticised. When I leave, someone else will be criticised but for now, I’d rather people criticised me and support the players.
”Say what you want about me, but get behind the players. I’ve been involved in sport for a long time and I’ve never once heard a player say that they were really motivated by abuse and vitriol from their own fans.””
There’s no word of a lie in the fact Pallotta hasn’t seen any profits from Roma, in his entire time in charge so far.
The only real debate is whether the money from player sales could have been spent better over the years. Spilt milk? Maybe. But being the 9th biggest spending club in Europe since 2010 is no joke. Only Juventus have spent more in Serie A than Roma, over that time.
Yes Roma’s money comes from player sales, but is the trick to sell well or buy well? Monchi’s reply to that question, in his time at Sevilla, was famously: “Neither. The important thing is to win trophies.”
Perhaps that’s why you’ll never get a better coach than Di Francesco. We know the one team doing bigger moves than Roma is the one team with a monopoly on the league title and so, Roma are building a cup-team to make a splash on the European scene.
That aside, Pallotta’s management has already surpassed the last ownership in terms of money privately invested into the club. And he certainly wasn’t the first president in the history of Roma to be mocked by chants and banners in the Curva.
The Sensis, Ciarrapico, Anzalone, Marchini... they all went through the ringer. Ever since football has opened itself up to selling shirts and dreams, Rome’s footballing scene has been rife with perennial disappointment, failed expectations and the culture of burning through coaches, while selling off players to Big 3 clubs of Italy to survive. All that mixed in with the occasional spike of glory for the Eternal City.
Is Pallotta’s era the right one to turn the page on over 50 years of the same old same old?
“In five years’ time, the team has to be playing in the new stadium. I’d love it if we have a great team on the pitch, competing for trophies, an excited fan base in Rome and all over the world and a stable management across the board.
“I want people to know that I did everything I could possibly do for Roma.
“In some ways, nothing makes me happier than when I see the club doing good things that prove we care, that show that we have a heart and that we are ambassadors for this great club and this great city.
“When I watched the video of Michela, the blind supporter, and her sister meeting their heroes, their passion and the way the club treated them… that makes me so proud. When I read the responses on Twitter, from not just our fans but also fans of other clubs, comments like, ‘What a great club,’ that makes me proud.”
“I care about how the players behave and I care about how our staff behave and conduct themselves. I never want anyone to think that Roma is a shit organisation.
“At the end of the day, when I do walk away, I want the perception to be that we had a great team that wore the Roma colours with pride and battled on the pitch for the fans and the city and that we were a first class organization. I want people to know that we did things right, we competed and we tried to win. The perception has to be that, otherwise I’ve failed.”
Just how close do fans believe Roma are to winning silverware? In that same Findomestic-Doxa survey of last autumn, 85% of fans claimed they knew this season would end with Juventus winning the title. 15% fancied Napoli and 10% fancied Inter Milan to win it.
7% of Italy-based fans believed Roma would win the league this season. Funnily enough, that was ahead of AC Milan’s perceived title-credentials (5%).
So why do we do it? Why follow Serie A? Luckily, this nerd report isn’t alone as 86% of Italy’s football fanbase claim they believe the team that spends the most, wins the most. As a result, 48% of football fans regularly keep up to date with football finances, the mercato and all the rumors we bring you on CdT.
All that’s left for Pallotta is to talk about the upcoming Derby.
“Big match on Saturday, big match on Wednesday. This is what it’s all about. These are the games you look forward to – games where there’s something on the line.
”Don’t ask me for a prediction but if we play how I know we can play, we can get the results we need.”