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Totti Today: Atalanta’s Summer Transfer Campaign Will Say Everything About Calcio’s Future

In an ideal world, Atalanta have no reason to sell key players. But idealism will get you killed.

Atalanta v Real Madrid - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg One Photo by Tullio Puglia - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

Max Schreck: I am the light of this city. And I am its mean, twisted soul. Does it matter who’s mayor?

Bruce Wayne: It does to me.

Max Schreck: Yawn!

“Yawn” is right.

It’s been a dry week in football news, so much so that I have to be honest: Every time I thought about writing this week’s Totti Today, it felt like oxygen was draining from my blood circulation, and the compulsion to tuck myself in bed hit me once more. Only one sensationalist, multi-part feature from the Gazzetta dello Sport’s Marco Iaria (he won my follow!) gave me the brief shot of adrenaline needed, and even that didn’t last long.

Iaria is part of the new breed of data-viz journalists who now not only write but visualize the imminent death of football; a sport that’s now sunk under mountains of rising debt. And anytime someone writes about football dying, you know I’m there. After all, if we’re sticking with the Batman references, then some men just wanna watch the world burn. Except the “big reveals” of the Gazzetta’s analysis weren’t really all that, often just updating us on things about today’s Serie A that we already knew, even if it was nice to get the refresher course.

Holstein Kiel v 1. FC Union Berlin - Second Bundesliga Photo by TF-Images/TF-Images via Getty Images

Chief among the Gazzetta’s major conclusions was that Atalanta are basically winning a Scudetto of their own; more than just a moral victory, La Dea have financially nailed what this “business of football” gig is all about.

Atalanta are in the healthiest financial state, by far, of all Serie A’s (and perhaps even Europe’s) leading clubs. They’re not the lone “feelgood” story in Serie A right now; Verona are in a healthy state financially, while Napoli, Cagliari, and Fiorentina have managed to live free from any bank debts (though that’s always a matter of context—I’m sure Commisso would gladly welcome going into business with a bank if he finally gets the green light to build a new stadium in Firenze). Yet Atalanta’s storm of success far outweighs any of the latter names.

In case we hadn’t already mentioned it, La Dea’s streak is thanks to a combination of stable teambuilding and Champions League revenue. So much so that there’s a point where plusvalenze—even those as tidy as the ones Atalanta have racked up by selling young, unproven names like Diallo and Kulusevski—stop making as much sense as going for repeat prize money and trophies, when it comes to growing your club on the bottom line.

After all, nothing breeds success like success itself. And there’s no better way to increase your real estate income than getting “plastic” fans (for lack of a better term) onboard your team’s bandwagon.

Atalanta may have reached that point, and Gasperini’s own pointed statements in the media this week shone a light on just how self-aware Atalanta are about not just having reached the crossroads themselves, but the position they're in to outlive the misfortune of Serie A rivals around them.

Gasperini: Serie A in Big Trouble Around Little Atalanta

Atalanta BC v Spezia Calcio - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Gasperini’s full-spread interview with L’Eco di Bergamo was lengthy but worth it. The highlight of it was Gasperini taking issue with the Italian football press already linking Atalanta’s key players with major moves elsewhere this summer as if the club agreeing to more transfer profits was already a done deal.

“I think about the transfer mercato rumours on our players,” Gasperini said, “and [the media] still treat us like the little club that lives to be raided. Maybe they want to create unrest, without realising that the club and the atmosphere around the club are both strong. I’m in agreement with those who say what counts the most is what happens on the pitch. We are Atalanta, and we won’t let ourselves get distracted. There are more than a few reasons why that annoys others.”

“For those ahead of us [in the table], we’re invaders. For those behind us, we’re an opportunity for them to recoup. I feel at home here, and I only see Atalanta getting stronger in the future. Two years of Champions League football has helped us to improve on both a technical and mental level. The club has grown both financially and gained experience. The Percassi family has become even better and stronger. And I see financial problems among our competitors, while our balance sheet is very strong. Now it’s time to make the most of our advantage.”

“The team has a very solid and tough core, and there’s a chance to make the team better by making our signings ahead of time. We don’t have any use for last-minute signings, and I don’t want to hear it said that ‘it’s difficult to improve’ anymore, because everything can improve.”

SOCCER: MAR 21 Serie A - Hellas Verona v Atalanta Photo by Stefano Nicoli/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now, we live in a world where Claudio Ranieri was fired as reigning Premier League champion at Leicester City (a sentence I still can’t believe I get to write in this life). So Gasperini’s speech this week could be the one that earns him a knighthood with the Italian government years down the line or gets him fired by the Percassi family by September.

At the very least, Gasperini is assured he’ll never have to pay for a beer in Bergamo again. That leaves one question for Atalanta’s star players to ask themselves this summer: Do they want a shot at achieving similar mythical status in Atalanta?

Consider the fact that their keeper Pierluigi Gollini keeps being touted with a move to Roma, despite the truth that he has no (sporting) reason to actually want such a move.

Roma aren’t a Champions League club (at the time of writing). Roma are mired in half a billion’s worth of bank debt. Roma’s new owners have already spent nearly 200 million euros of their own money just to keep the club afloat, and Roma have set the record for the highest losses in a Serie A season in 2019-20. None of these statements are that damning (the one about Roma’s owners' deep pockets could even be spun into a positive), but the worst part of it is that Roma’s media spent this week talking about “Gasperini’s era at Atalanta” being “done.”

Those were the exact words used by a radio journalist in Rome, last week. And we’re left to assume it’s because Atalanta “only” sits in 4th place (potentially dropping down to 5th if Napoli wins their game in hand), lost a round of 16 knockout tie to Real Madrid, and are in the Coppa Italia final against Juventus this May. Not good enough for a team that was supposed to take a shot at the league title this season, in Rome’s eyes.

Roma still comes off like it is surrounded by a local media that believes it's the club’s duty to win, and win now. And if you’re starved of success then your best bet is to buy it. But Gollini and whoever else Tiago Pinto has on his summer hitlist may have very different views on success.

Chicken or The Egg: Fake Transfer Fees and Real Wages

Juventus v Benevento Calcio - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

There are some other background conclusions to the Gazzetta’s feature this week, sparking the debate on whether it’s best to attack rising player wages or rising transfer fees (more than likely the answer is to limit both).

The most worrying part of inflated transfer fees going around Serie A (and European football) is that amortization payments (for simplicity’s sake: transfer fees) for Serie A’s 20 clubs rose by over €300 million in just the last season alone. Consider that Serie A’s total net debts (of all 20 current clubs) stand at €2.2 billion, and that means inflated transfer fees have contributed to nearly 14% of the league’s total outstanding debts in the last months.

That is close to nuclear. It’s a way to set your future on fire and then some.

The most tragic example of this trend is whatever is going on between Genoa and Juventus. Through a series of inflated player swaps, amortization payments on Genoa’s accounts have stripped the club of any say in their immediate future (reflected by Genoa owner Preziosi’s stance that he’s been looking for a new buyer for years and has mentally checked out of the club), while Juventus have only really saved themselves by deferring some €90 million worth of player salaries to keep the expenses in check.

And therein lies the nugget of this debate: The numbers behind rising transfer fees are stunning, but its control of wages that could really give clubs room to re-take the reins of their own destiny.

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

The growth in player salaries may not be as eye-catching—they’ve only (if that is the right word) risen by €600 million total in Serie A over the last decade—but with the decrease in player salaries comes a decrease in the value of player contracts, and an inevitable decrease in transfer fees as a result. What’s more, transfer costs hit clubs on a six-month basis at most, whereas you live and die by control of your wage budget on a much more short-term basis.

If clubs could wage cap in the immediate future, then maybe we would see Genoa free themselves from effectively having tied their destiny to keeping Juventus afloat. Can you really see a club like Genoa going against whatever Juventus has to say on the re-draft of the European Super League plans? Can you see a club like Verona going against Roma?

Will Atalanta Stick Their Neck Out for Serie A’s Soul?

AS Roma v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

When you’re Verona and you need your opponents to make good on their Max Kumbulla amortization payments (which - for the record - will total €27.5 million on Roma’s accounts), whatever Roma say is best for their near-term survival is whatever Verona go along with on the bottom line. That may not sound as insidious if you’re a Roma fan but, at the very least by now, I hope this has helped put words to why Atalanta are becoming a lot of people’s second-favorite club.

They’re not my second-favorite club (in fact a lot of my second-favorite clubs of the past have recklessly spent money like nobody’s business), but I’m more than happy to put Atalanta over as the champions of today. They’re making it impossible for us to look away and pretend we’re oblivious to the real problems around the lack of competition in football for trophies and memorable wins. There’s no better example of that than fans choosing to blame Financial Fair Play for getting itself worked around, rather than holding the people who put those workarounds in place responsible for their own actions.

At the end of the day, FFP is only a set of rules or guidelines at best; guidelines that were formalized from the unofficial expectations placed upon the business of football since the 1960s.

Yes, the legitimacy of those rules was thrown out by UEFA when Manchester City exposed the fact that UEFA are unable to enforce them, but the people who have circumvented those rules haven’t come up with any better solutions other than “multi-owner club partnerships” (nothing new), a European Super League (not as bad an idea as its made out to be but still nothing we haven’t seen put into action before), and changing the rules on the pitch to chase the high-scoring thrills (and the TV revenue) of America’s top sports leagues. In other words, the same old same old.

As the one Serie A club with the larger part of its destiny in its own hands this summer, what Atalanta chooses to do with its own fate will let us know if a modest outfit in Bergamo really dares to upset the apple cart in European football, or if we’re all just waiting for a new era of Superleague bailouts to help keep the status quo.

Will Atalanta go big or will they choose to Protect Their Neck?

The Wu is too slammin’ for these Cold Killin’ labels
Some ain’t had hits since I seen Aunt Mabel
Be doin’ artists in like Cain did Abel
Now they money’s gettin’ stuck to the gum under the table
That’s what ya get when ya misuse what I invent
Your empire falls and you lose every cent
You best protect ya neck
You best protect ya neck
You best protect ya neck
You best protect ya neck