Walter Sabatini. Monchi. Gianluca Petrachi.
Supposedly three different footballing creeds, and yet all have one thing in common: They all agreed to work for a man who bought their beliefs for so little. James Pallotta knew the money was right, opening the door for him to use all three men’s weaknesses against them, and change the job detail on the fly when it suited him. So how can three men who claim to be expert forecasters have all been so blind?
For the record: I would have sold out to Pallotta for less, and especially for the chance to be a part of A.S. Roma. So I’m not saying I’m any better. Only that these men, despite the tall tales they spin in their plastic shamanism, are decidedly human.
And that’s the thing about the sporting director job; it’s a romanticized role carried out by men reveal their own personal limits to be incredibly normal. Ever since Monchi failed to turn water into wine at Roma, it hit me (maybe too late, and later than everyone else) that the the importance of the DS role is less about the mysticism of the people who take the job, and more about the job itself.
Before football became a television showpiece, the first signs that a sporting director could achieve mythical status (on a worldwide stage) emerged in the 1960s. Italo Allodi’s dark hand of manipulation behind the success of that Grande Inter dynasty gained more infamy than fame.
Allodi would go to any length to be sure the right referees made the right calls in Inter’s biggest European ties. But football finance didn’t have a pressing need to be run like a business, so whether or not Allodi was any good at getting value for money was never a discussion at the time. No sooner were clubs were only just waking up to the fact they could be run as limited companies before that was all cut off all the legs, once more.
Any hope of a democratic future for football was firmly put to an end less than two decades later, when one man decided he liked the sport going back to a time where it could be run as his personal fiefdom.
In the big-swinging television era of the 1980s, Silvio Berlusconi showed you could get away with being interested in political gain first and football second. Yes, in that order.
Success on the pitch would come regardless, as long as you had the chequebook to get away with it. The man that Berlusconi entrusted his chequebook to was Adriano Galliani, and Galliani’s extravagant choice of Arrigo Sacchi as Milan coach—bringing a decidedly anti-Italian ethos of playing to dominant space instead of the opponent—started to widen the discussion the Direttore Sportivo. Just how far would you back a man’s personal vision on the bottom line?
That was a pressing question among the media because Sacchi’s Milan won—despite the myth and the legend—comparatively few trophies for the huge amounts of money (not to mention emotional well-being) spent on it’s biggest signings.
When big names didn’t comply with Sacchi’s immediate wishes, they were shipped out again. Galliani was given carte blanche to simply spend more money fixing those mistakes. All the while, the cost of running an Italian football club was inflating for everyone. Only Berlusconi didn’t mind.
What little success Milan did enjoy under Sacchi football was extravagant, and daring enough to capture the hearts and minds of several Milan (and Italian football) fans for generations to come. That gave Berlusconi all the fuel he needed to go through yet more spending under Capello, Zaccheroni and Ancelotti before his interests in propping up a football club faded in the latter 2000s.
After all, Berlusconi’s gamble in owning Milan was buying the popular vote on the street. Berlusconi had proven he could bring a club like Milan out of the ashes into a new era of glory. So couldn’t he do the same for Italy as a country?
That ticket to ride into goverment worked for decades, until a few too many personal corruption scandals caught up with old Silvio. Throughout it all, the need to get back on top of spending would mean that the sporting director role defined itself in the business of football. It was the right place and the right time for men like Galliani to claim they had to answer. Men at smaller clubs that they, too, could claim they knew what Galliani knew and mimic that silver bullet. Roma has, time and again, been one of those clubs looking for that shamanic answer to overnight success.
From Inter Milan’s success of the 1960s came Roma’s incredibly expensive decision (one they would regret beyond more than just money) to bring coach Helenio Herrera down to the Eternal City. From Milan’s success of the 1990s came Fabio Capello walking back into Rome, this time bringing enough with him to deliver Roma’s last league title success in 2001. Only once did Roma notably turn a shaman away from the gates of Trigoria, in the 1970s and 80s, by refusing the overtures of agent-turned-director Luciano Moggi.
Moggi would first take his ball and go to Napoli, and then Juventus. The rest was history. Throughout it all, wages skyrocketed, transfer fees went up and, before you know it, sharks are swimming around your club left adrift from the wreckage.
Amid that wreckage, though, the need for a sporting director is really just about needing someone to blame.
In that sense, it’s a lot like the hatred for zonal marking at set pieces. One ESPN articled boiled it down, years ago, to our need to point the finger at one individual when it goes wrong.
Zonal marking, like ruling by committee, makes it uncomfortable when we all collectively have to get over ourselves and find some sort of common ground. Even the most talented of us predictably regress to the mean over time, and there’s a need to discuss how incredibly average we can all be in practice.
It’s much more comfortable to burn the time away asking: Who hired that coach? Surely they need to go. Who picked that lineup? Surely the formation needs a change. Who signed those players? Who was marking that opponent? And so on.
That puts the mysticism back in the hands of football’s plastic shaman. The people who will sell you a story about the footballing odds being within our control at all times. The story that Roma is in charge of not just her own destiny, but big enough to shape the direction of football as a whole.
But realistically not even a 1980s Berlusconi, 1990s Moratti, 2000s Abramovich or even a 2010s Al Mubarak has everything go their way without a large slice of luck. They just have the finance to recover from mistakes. And for the rest of us who do not? Then clearly someone somewhere has to pay.
Here are four men who let Roma’s blame culture chew them up and spit them out, three of whom took so wholeheartedly to Roma that they couldn’t do anything but blame others by the time they were done:
Plastic Shaman #1: Walter Sabatini
Shaman style: Will do everything “regretfully”. Smokes cigarettes on rooftops.
Legitimate claim to being good at the job: Maintains a good record of signing defenders and South American talents, even today. Once was in charge of decent Perugia and Lazio sides that enjoyed success against the odds.
Why it’s never his fault: Football is suffering and he didn’t ask to live this life.
I also over-think my work to the Nth degree (just the amount of time I spent analysing a new domain name for my freelance career last month tells a story in itself), so I get the appeal of a Walter Sabatini. He’s highly relatable, in both the good and the bad.
Sabatini regretfully wanted to leave Roma by the time James Pallotta went over his head and fired Rudi Garcia, but Walter regretfully agreed to stay on for another year until the club could find a successor. By the time Sabatini was done, Roma had overspent by 50 million just in Sabatini’s last year alone, needed record-levels of funds injected by the board to keep ticking over, and had no footballing identity beyond the classic Italian asymmetric style that gets destroyed so often on the European stage.
This was all achieved with great regret on Sabatini’s part.
Walter couldn’t (or was not) interested in building a coherent team from the very ground up. His strategy was buying the best talent the club (couldn’t) afford, and finding a coach who would man-manage that talent. Sell off the best of that talent the next season, and then you’re left with De Rossi-Nainggolan-Strootman.
Yes, they were a hard-man midfield who could shield the back-line well enough. But they also didn’t have the skill or teamwork to unlock the Chievos on a rainy night at the Bentegodi, to save their lives.
This short-term philosophy goes back to Sabatini’s poor choice of coaches: Rudi Garcia and Luciano Spalletti. Both were likable men, but two coaches who need experienced players to get away with their training methods. Not coaches you appoint when you’re trying to nurture talent on a budget.
Nowadays, you can find Walter Sabatini up at Bologna, regretfully accepting offers from the Premier League for 25m-rated right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu. It’s not that Bologna have overspent by 40 million last summer. That has nothing to do with it.
Plastic Shaman #2: Monchi
Shaman style: Selling you on the Monchi Method. There’s even a book about it.
Legitimate claim to being good at the job: Countless Europa League titles and a football playing style that’s in vogue since the mid-2000s.
Why it’s never his fault: Monchi reserves his special brand of charity for goalkeepers in particular. He’ll set keepers up to fail, signing them to wrong style of play. But at least they’ll know how he felt in his own playing career, so he’s doing them a favour really.
Unlike Sabatini, once Monchi realised Pallotta was going over his head to fire coach Eusebio Di Francesco, the Spanish DS was immediately done with the collective BS that Monchi himself had helped to spin.
Claiming to practice a world-famous method for success, Monchi’s biggest flaws in Rome were goalkeepers and left-footed inside forwards. Once he failed to Jedi mind-trick Leicester City into giving away Riyad Mahrez, Monchi would go out and “methodically” sign Patrik Schick instead. Really though, it was done on a whim.
The next summer, Monchi learned the Roma way by publicly holding a Sky TV interview after failing to sign Malcom. The explanation? It was James Pallotta’s fault for getting involved in negotiations. It couldn’t possibly be Monchi’s fault, because he would prove he knew how to sign world-class players by going out and getting Steven Nzonzi. Yeah.
Then there was the signing of conservative keepers Antonio Mirante and Robin Olsen, in a Roma side that aggressively plays the offside trap. Mirante has made the best of it, but Olsen looks like a man in need of anger management. You won’t find Monchi sticking around to be the source of your anger, Robin.
Instead you can find Monchi, today, back to being king. At a club (and a city) that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than where it is in life, it turns out Monchi’s method has been ingrained long enough that he can just pick up right where he left off. Who knew?
Plastic Shaman #3: Gianluca Petrachi
Shaman style: Flat caps, and monologues so long that he’ll accidentally say something useful by the time he’s done talking.
Legitimate claim to being good at the job: A very good record at signing South American talents, and a daring football philosophy that he put into play at Pisa, Torino and Roma. Unfortunately he only has the tangible success at Pisa to show for it.
Why it’s never his fault: Born into a celebrity family and father, so the norms of social conduct shouldn’t apply to him.
The master of press conferences that ran over an hour at times, Petrachi’s style reminds me of something a friend told me a little over a year go. I never forgot it, not because of how true it may or may not be, but because I’d finally found the words that irk me about self-styled “brutally honest” people and their brand of snake oil:
‘Once you tell someone an uncomfortable truth as strangers, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt from there on in.’
My friend was actually talking about his strategy for getting to the final of an online YouTube reality show, and it worked well enough.
He introduced himself to the group by “admitting” he voted against some of them in the early round (an uncomfortable truth) and was then given free reign to sabotage the group all the way to the final. Any time it came down to a “one person’s word vs another” moment, my friend simply stayed quiet while the rest of the group reasoned: “He was brutally honest with us from day 1, so he wouldn’t steer us wrong now.”
This despite the fact that he, and every other player, had everything to gain from lying. I think this approach to manipulating people only holds true when they’re in a moment of low-self esteem.
I don’t claim to know Petrachi, just that his time of walking into both Torino and Roma - both clubs with low self-esteem at the time he was appointed (Torino literally in a mess where players were getting assaulted by fans) - runs parallel to that story. A lot of fans in Turin are done with Petrachi’s mentor, Urbano Cairo. This despite the fact that, like Petrachi, Cairo is actually ruthlessly good at his job.
But here’s another uncomfortable truth: It turns out being good at your job runs a very distant second, in any workplace, to not being an *sshole.
Most likely used by Roma as a failed attempt to get close to his friend Conte, Petrachi probably regrets the press conference where he publicly told Conte he’d realise “the winning team” is happening down south.
#4: The Shaman of All Shamans, James Pallotta
Shaman style: Will tell his under-shaman everything they want to hear.
Legitimate claim to being good at the job: It’s not like Petrachi, Monchi or Sabatini are vulnerable people in society. If can seduce them, let’s face it, you have to be good at reading people.
Why it’s never his fault: “I didn’t screw Bret Hart. Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart.”
Let’s include James Pallotta to revisit the mistakes we hope Dan Friedkin doesn’t commit. And those mistakes have little to do what’s been said by either Sabatini or Petrachi pandering to fans and public opinion, but the mistakes that will hold back any football club on average.
Signing three sporting directors with conflicting philosophies in less than a decade. Signing coaches like Rudi Garcia or Luciano Spalletti without the budget to justify their need for a full squad of players in their prime.
Then there’s just my personal wish that you don’t sign another DS that looks, walks and delivers his own press releases in the form of a Ralf Ragnick. As Walter Sabatini himself said about Ragnick just last week: “It’s said he creates wealth, but he’s also had the backing of Red Bull behind him.”
Or former director Umberto Gandini: “Ragnick is certainly one who knows how to talk up his work, and he’d expect carte blanche wherever he goes.”
In other words, nothing we haven’t seen talk or walk themselves out of the job in Roma before.
For now, give me the measured approach of Guido Fienga any day of the week. Someone who wants spin tall tales to distract from his own mistakes, while look to claim there’s a method behind his opportune successes. Someone who, to paraphrase the Friedkins’, is short on talking and long on facts. Throw in Morgan De Santis as his under-shaman too, and you’ve sold me on that deal.
Maybe I’m just on the defensive and afraid to dream a little bigger. That’s a fair call. But what value does a sporting director bring to a club anyway?
Beyond an ability to read the patterns, it’s got to be striking up relationships and opening your personal filofax of contacts to the club.
Sometimes you’ll use those contacts sign a player who you’re legitimately giving the chance to step up to a level they’ve never experienced before, and other times you’re mixing that with players who’s seen better days elsewhere but still have some lessons to impart on your squad today. In between the Villars and Pedros of your squad, your hardest task is signing players in their prime - the likes of which only end up at Roma because the musical chairs were all taken elsewhere.
That’s today’s difference between losing out on Cristian Romero to Champions League football at Atalanta, and still being in the running to sign an extremely reluctant Arkadiusz Milik who’d like to be at Juve but would rather be anywhere but Napoli. It doesn’t take foresight to see that much.
We don’t need another DS, we don’t know to know the way home, all we want life beyond... The Olimpico.