I could do with a tenth of the confrontation in my personal life that Aleksandar Kolarov eats for breakfast. Last week, the Serbian committed the cardinal sin of sports-entertainment by talking back to a fan. People feigned outrage. Kolarov just got on with being Kolarov.
The incident stirred up some more talk about where Roma’s relationship with her fanbase is heading (or if we’re really honest - where it’s always been). Then I read a thread response from the AS Roma Reddit on the wider atmosphere of Rome.
I could say more about the players and the Curva Sud, but this post was already long enough. The bottom line is there doesn’t need to be a superficial “choice” of loyalties between fans who love or hate the highs (and lows) from either era.
Sensi History #1: ‘Franco Sensi is another president who was well loved not only because he steadied a sinking ship but also because he loved and lived the team. He was incredibly committed and made a lot of sacrifices including paying an obscene amount of money for Batistuta so we could win the league.’
Franco Sensi was a man who loved to be loved. He was exploited for this by Fabio Capello to sign Gabriel Batistuta in 2000.
The money Sensi shelled out on a 31-year old Batistuta is still the club record transfer fee (when adjusted for inflation), and perhaps the best example of Sensi’s need for public approval. Unless you count Sensi publicly rebuking club captain and legend Giuseppe Giannini in 1994 for missing a penalty against Lazio, and needlessly forcing him out the club. But that’s a more tragic example of pandering for another time.
A short but simple segment from James Richardson’s Golazzo podcast detailed how Fabio Capello and Franco Baldini got together to emotionally blackmail the President into signing the striker they wanted. Why were Capello and Baldini so confident they could get away with inviting Batistuta to town in front of the cameras first, and worrying about whether Sensi would cough up the money for the move last?
It’s a long story you might recognise under a more recent face today. But back then, a Lazio Scudetto win across town had something to do with it, and there were also the years of failed promises (sound familiar?) from Sensi building the tension around town.
These failures were costly enough that Sensi, by the turn of the millenium, knew his days as the club sugar-daddy were over. To date, the Sensi family go down in history as having made the single biggest private profit off of A.S. Roma, according to the lawyer who helped Franco Sensi take the club public back in 2000.
Football was becoming bigger and bigger business. Just under 40 years of TV rights sales showed no real signs of abating, and people were ready to speculate over whether football clubs could be taken seriously not just as limited companies, but publicly floated business on the Italian Borsa. It was the right time and place for Franco Sensi to get his money back.
According to Filippo Lubrano (and no one from the Sensi family has contested his version of events), Franco Sensi first bought Roma for 100 billion lire in 1993 before going on a seven-year run putting the family’s money (another 150 billion lire) into club transfers. For all his effort, by the year 2000, Sensi had been beaten up publicly by Sergio Cragnotti across town almost year-for-year on the transfer market.
When Roma were rumoured to be signing Red Star Belgrade’s breakout young star player Dejan Stankovic in 1998, instead Stankovic turned up in a Lazio shirt next to Cragnotti for the cameras. In hindsight, Stankovic’s choice shouldn’t have been a surprise.
He was the next big thing out of the Balkans, and chose the club that signed the very Red Star players of that 1991 Champions League winning Belgrade side. Stankovic merely looked up to and followed the footsteps of ex-Roma player Sinisa Mihajlovic and Vladimir Jugovic to Italy, where they were both waiting for him at Lazio. Franco Sensi’s response was the anti-climatic signing of Ivan Tomic.
Nothing personal against Tomic, but if you’re pulling open a new tab to Wiki search him right now then the point is already made. He wasn’t the Balkan star signing to get hyped over. Still, nothing was as extreme as the reaction when losing out to Lazio over Christian Vieri’s signing just weeks later.
“If Vieri was on the market, he’d be a Roma player by now,” retorted Sensi whenever the press asked him if Roma was the club to bring the Italian striker back to the peninsula from Madrid. But Sensi was forced to eat his words when Vieri joined Cragnotti’s party in August 1998, on the very same day Roma unveiled their 1998/99 squad at the Olimpico. There was arguably no bigger way to publicly gloat over your neighbours than what Cragnotti pulled off on that August day, save for the Lazio title win just two years later.
Sensi’s response was to try and throw his own coach - at the time Zdenek Zeman (in his first Roma spell in charge) - under the bus: “Zeman told me Vieri wasn’t the striker for his kind of football.”
Zeman, firmly unimpressed and never one willing to take the fall for the team over his own principles, simply fired back in public: “I would have taken Vieri on my team anyday. He’s one of the best players in the world.”
Zeman wouldn’t last much longer in the capital under Sensi, replaced by Fabio Capello mid-season in 1999 for many reasons; not least of all making enemies with Juventus over doping claims. And fans were left frustrated all the same.
The tension boiled over into the infamous Curva Sud banner “Cragnotti, buy Sensi”. It certainly wasn’t abated by Sensi signing Fabio Junior in January 1999, publicly proclaiming Junior was the signing to lead Roma to the Scudetto. The hype was driven to the point of the Corriere dello Sport releasing a 17-minute VHS tape of Fabio Junior’s best moments in Brazil with every issue (putting the jibes over highlight videos on Youtube today in perspective).
In Sensi’s own words at the time, Junior was meant to be better than signing Inter’s Ronaldo, Kiev’s Shevchenko or Monaco’s Trezeguet. It doesn’t take much gift of hindsight to see how far off the mark that turned out to be.
All of this, including Lazio’s 2000 title win, led to Fabio Capello (who himself is arguably Sensi’s best-ever signing) knowing he had his president by the balls. Capello didn’t want Vincenzo Montella to lead the line. He wanted a striker with physical dominance on the pitch, and Capello knew just what buttons to push to get Batistuta. In the meanwhile, according to Lubrano, Sensi re-upped his own funds by taking A.S. Roma public that same year to bankroll Capello’s demands.
The 250 billion lire Sensi put into the club out of his own wallet was partially re-imbursed to the tune of 170 billion lire raised on the stock market by floating a third of the club (or 13 million shares) in Roma’s IPO of 2000.
That club structure - 2 thirds privately owned, 1 third public - is similar* to the conditions under which James Pallotta’s group bought Roma from the Sensi family at the beginning of this decade (the Sensis still own the training pitches of Trigoria and lease them to the club until 2020).
It is true that Franco Sensi initially used that 170 million from sold stock to immediately sink more money back into the club and sign the Walter Samuels and Gabriel Batistutas of the world. But, crucially, the Sensi family got all their money back plus profit in the selling the club on in 2011. And why would we expect otherwise?
A football club wasn’t the amazingly profitable business ready to explode on the world scene that people speculated it would be, when clubs started going public in 2000. Roma had gambled big and won a Scudetto in 2001 - only the third league title in the club’s history - yet the success just didn’t catch fire beyond the peninsula.
The Sensis accepted this, but only in the sense of recognising the 29% of public shares in Roma were worth significantly less in 2011 than the price at which they’d initially gone on public offer. When it came to the two thirds of the club privately owned by the Sensis? That’ll cost you 384 billion lire, a sum repaying all the money the Sensis had ever put into Roma and then some; money needed to repay their debts elsewhere.**
We know that by the beginning of the 2000s, the Sensi’s main Italpetroli business was in serious debt trouble, demanding they sell off assets in the family portfolio to keep the bank satisfied. Selling Roma at a profit and passing on the bill to the next owner was just common business sense. Rosella Sensi was coy in claiming publicly that her father “had never taken a cent out of Roma”, but that was a half-truth at best.
The beginnings of selling both star players and youth products to keep the club on its feet (Walter Samuel to Real Madrid, Alberto Aquilani to Liverpool) came about before Pallotta turned it into a full-time order of business. The skepticism over whether James Pallotta is here to build the club for anything other than making a buck off it are more than justified. I’m not here to write otherwise.
After all, James Pallotta’s era has taken what the Sensis already proved they could pull off in their time, and just made it bigger. Only without the Catholic guilt of “love is sacrifice” thrown into the deal for fans. Speaking of which...
Sensi History #2: Up until last year, Maria Sensi (Franco’s wife) would still come to the stadium and watch Roma.
Everyone liked what Maria Sensi had done for the club, so we all agreed to look the other way when she publicly blasted Francesco Totti just days after his 40th birthday for not inviting any Sensis to his party.
Making a private matter public over Roma’s radiowaves was a tragi-comic way to go out, but all too common for anyone who’s familiar with the “I made you now I can break you” family-amoralism of Italy’s older generations.
Welcome to Il Bel Paese, where all young Italians have long since grown tired of the country for old men.
Sensi History #3: Let’s compare them to Pallotta shall we?
James Pallotta’s management has brought several mistakes and broken promises. In fact, short of promising to sign a modern-day Vieri and have that guy turn up across the River Tiber in a Biancocelesti shirt, you’d say Pallotta’s regime looks a lot like the first seven years of Franco Sensi owning Roma from 1993 to 2000.
And for the Sensi’s era-defining moment of floating the club on the stock market after seven years of ownership, you can draw a parallel theme of “is it just ambition or foolish speculation?” in Pallotta’s management finally getting the titanic Stadio della Roma complex off the ground in a similar length of time.
There are four differences I can make out between both eras:
- Franco Sensi won a Scudetto. Rosella Sensi won multiple Italian Cups and a Supercup. James Pallotta’s era hasn’t won anything.
- The Sensis were not good at delegating the sporting side of the club, where Pallotta has learnt over time who to trust. When it become public knowledge that Daniele Pradè was privately colluding with Luciano Moggi’s agency to profit off Roma’s player sales, Rosella Sensi made the baffling decision to oust Franco Baldini and promote Pradè as Roma’s sporting director instead. The first order of business for Pallotta’s management was to move on from Pradè and bring back Franco Baldini.
- James Pallotta has unapologetically made the business of player sales a regular year-on-year activity. Instead of it being a trauma Roma had to live with every now and then in the previous decade, now we’re so used to saying goodbye to the players that we’d love to brag to our friends about in football banter. We’ve learnt not to get emotionally attached to anyone who looks like becoming a star player in the Giallorossi shirt.
- Despite the player sales, Pallotta’s era has seen 215 million euros from management’s own money invested into the club since the takover, without taking any money back as of yet. That is 70 million euros more (adjusting for inflation) than the Sensi family put into the club before claiming their money back.
Sensi (and Roma) History #4: Roma is not about being good or winning. It’s about giving your 100%. Players such as Agostino Di Bartolomei, Sebino Nela, Franco Tancredi, Giacomo Losi, Rudy Voeller, Cerezo, Falcao, Aldair and Ruggiero Rizzitelli...
This is true in a sense, but let’s not ignore the club’s sketchy history of contradiction here. For every decade since the sixties, the club has been caught dancing between barren trophyless sentiment and sudden opportunism.
Giacomo Losi was sent packing in the name of winning under Helenio Herrera, Agostino Di Bartolomei was sent packing in the name of winning under Sven Goran Eriksson. Same story for Sergio Santarini under Nils Liedholm. Same story for Giuseppe Giannini.
No matter how many games these icons amassed in their playing career, when it looked like Roma had the chance to win without them, the city moved on. In some cases the city didn’t even look back. Ago was said to have asked Dino Viola for a job when Di Bartolomei faced the grim reality of life after football, but he was met with silence from Viola.
Compare that to Ruggiero Rizzitelli and Ubaldo Righetti working for Roma TV today. Nela, Tancredi, Völler, Cerezo, Falcao and Aldair have all been inducted into the Hall of Fame opened in 2012. Within the club’s current management are Federico Balzaretti, Morgan De Sanctis, Eusebio Di Francesco and, not least of all, Francesco Totti.
Consolidating Roma from generation-to-generation is not only common sense on a psychological level, but it’s finally a step towards acknowledging club servants who have done their time with Roma in both the highs and the lows.
Pro-Pallotta fans will say Pallotta is a benefactor. Anti-Pallotta fans will say the club burns through cash like there’s no tomorrow. History asks: What’s the difference? Common business sense will always prevail in the end, to the benefit of neither you nor me but the owner in charge.
The questions for people in the middle are: When will Pallotta want to make money back? Before, during or after Stadio della Roma is built? And will Roma win any trophies in the meantime? If so, then how?
After all, you can’t call a sporting project “sporting” without sporting objectives. And fourth place in the league is not a sporting goal.
I believe Monchi’s history in putting together cup-winning sides goes someway towards answering this last question in the long-term. A second Champions League semi-final in the club’s entire history, in 2018, showed it’s easier to put together a defensive team to earn glory in Europe rather than building a league-winning squad that can mentally withstand the 38-matchday-grind of negative emotional spirals in Rome.
*Correction: I’d originally and incorrectly reported that Pallotta’s group owns two thirds of the club. As Hetneo pointed out in the comment section below, Pallotta agreed to buy a bigger private stake in the club when his investor group agreed the takeover in 2011.
**Note: There are conflicting details between Filippo Lubrano’s version of events and the agreement reported by Unicredit, please see the comment section. Thank you to Hetneo for pointing this out.