Can Juventus president Andrea Agnelli help save Serie A from itself?
It is almost the first memory Andrea Agnelli has: It's the summer of 1982, Italy has just won the World Cup and the Agnelli family's soccer team, Juventus, is in preseason training at Villar Perosa, near the family's country estate.
Agnelli recalls: "We were at lunch and my father asked me 'Who do you want to sit next to?' I said Paolo Rossi, of course, the top scorer of the World Cup. I was 6 years old. And there my memories with Juventus started."
The Agnellis, often called the "Kennedys of Italy," own two great pieces of Italian heritage: the Fiat car company, founded in 1899 by Andrea's great-grandfather Giovanni, who thought there might be a future in horseless carriages, and Juventus, which the family took over in 1923. "We are the longest living ownership of this sort of any sports club in the world," says Andrea.
The bearded, lanky 38-year-old is now Juve's president and recently I interviewed him on stage at the Studio festival in Milan. Agnelli is having the best of times, and the worst. On the one hand, Juventus looks headed for its fourth straight Italian title, a feat it last achieved in the 1930s.
On the other, Italy's once-great league is suffering from racism, hooliganism, half-empty stadiums, an exodus of players and regular scandals. Can Agnelli help Italian soccer recover? And along the way, can he make Juve a little less despised?
When he became club president in 2010, Juve was still suffering the aftereffects of the Calciopoli scandal of 2006: the revelation that Juve's then general manager, Luciano Moggi, had spent much of his work week on his cellphone arranging which referees should be appointed for Juventus' matches and which for rival teams. As punishment, Juve was stripped of two titles and demoted to Italy's second division, Serie B.
But under Agnelli, Juve rebounded, thanks largely to its new stadium, which, after 17 years in the making, opened in 2011. It is Italy's only new stadium, Agnelli says. "The average age of Italian stadiums is 64 years, including the Juventus stadium," he grumbles.
Agnelli believes that the country's decaying stadiums don't merely reduce clubs' revenues. They also encourage fan misbehavior. "If I go to a neglected and filthy neighborhood, I feel more allowed to throw chewing gum on the ground instead of using the garbage can. If we have obsolete stadiums, we have people behaving accordingly."
All told, the Italian league is in a bit of a hole. "It's not even a noble decadence," he grumbles. "It's just decadence. Less than 20 years ago, England, Spain and Germany saw Italy as an example. Now they've overtaken us in every way. What used to be Italy's best industry, our showcase, is in decline. The same could be said about Italy itself." Indeed, the country seems stuck in permanent recession.
I mention to Agnelli that, when we last spoke in April 2013, he complained about exactly the same problems. Has Italian soccer made any progress since? He answers in one word: "No."
He wants Juventus to "help raise Italy from its decline" but, for now, Italy's decline is dragging down even Juve.
"Compared with the world's best teams, we are now far behind," says Agnelli. "Four clubs have a remarkable competitive advantage: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Last year Madrid broke the wall of 600 million euros in annual revenues. Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern are in the 500 millions."
Meanwhile, Juve last season achieved its highest ever revenues: 316 million euros, which put them a touch behind Arsenal and Chelsea. "So we have half the top clubs' revenue. I think Juventus' goal is to consolidate fifth place for financial power."
Juventus is rich enough to rule Italy but surely thrashing a poor team like Parma 7-0, as Juve did recently, is hardly satisfying. "While I was watching it wasn't that bad," Agnelli jokes.
But he agrees and, bizarrely for a club president, wants his Italian rivals to improve. He hopes Milan and Inter will eventually manage to boost their revenues by renovating the San Siro or building a new stadium.
"We are co-opetitors because we compete and we also cooperate. Off the field we all need to follow the same directions, on the field there's no mercy. I would love to see other Italian teams perform better in the Europa League, and win it."
Meanwhile, I say, if I were a great young player like Juventus's midfielder Paul Pogba, I'd leave this second-tier league fast.
"It's lucky you're not Pogba," jokes Agnelli. "Last year everybody was saying that Pogba and [Arturo] Vidal were ready to leave Juventus, but they didn't. Our goal is to keep on building our team and Pogba and Vidal are part of this process. This Juventus team is a crop of players that could easily be ranked in the top eight in Europe.
"A couple of years ago nobody knew who Pogba was, and now it's a drama if he leaves. Another young player, [18-year-old Frenchman Kingsley] Coman, made an excellent debut this year. Very soon we might hear the stadium chanting 'Don't sell Coman!' I hope so."
But Agnelli admits: "What is true is that Serie A is a transit league. We are not a final destination anymore. The risk is for great players to come here, acquire status, and then leave to become top stars abroad."
Why does he even believe that Serie A can recover? "Italy is passion. Italians are soccer fans. That passion is the fuel. But we need to change the car." Unfortunately, the guy elected this year to drive the car, the Italian federation's president Carlo Tavecchio, hardly looks like a modernizer.
The 71 year-old recently said about an imaginary African player, "Opti Poba": "Previously he ate bananas, now he plays in the first team for Lazio, and we say that's OK." UEFA, the European soccer authority, has given Tavecchio a six-month suspension for racism.
Agnelli is hardly an admirer of Tavecchio. After the "Opti Poba" comments, Agnelli's British wife asked him: "How can this man still be there running for president?" Agnelli shrugs: "In our country, the ethical sense is low."
Agnelli himself deplores racism. But when I push him on the issue -- last year when Juventus played Milan I watched Juve fans make monkey noises at Milan's Kevin-Prince Boateng -- he changes the subject. He goes into a long monologue about the Italian tradition of "campanilismo," essentially local pride, which means that people from one region or city often abuse people from another. That, he emphasizes, isn't racism.
One issue on which Juventus cannot claim moral superiority is Calciopoli. Agnelli doesn't like talking about the scandal, because he believes the Italian media fixate on it, but when I ask him why Juve invited the disgraced Moggi to a recent home game, he replies: "He came with his grandchildren. He is very much part of our history. We are a Catholic country, the country of forgiveness, so we can forgive him. Why not?"
After all, Agnelli argues, it wasn't only Moggi who phoned referees; all clubs did. "How come those who made the same mistake as us have won the [Serie A title]?"
(Agnelli proved right, incidentally, about Calciopoli's grip on the Italian psyche. After our on-stage conversation, his "pardon" of Moggi made headlines across the Italian media. Moggi himself responded with a cheeky tweet: "I thank Andrea Agnelli, but I don't require a pardon. Just a eulogy for what I did.")
Eight years on from the scandal, Juve is still accused of manipulating results. On October 5, there was national outcry after a string of bizarre refereeing decisions helped the club beat Roma 3-2. Roma's playmaker Francesco Totti complained: "Juventus should have a league just for itself, because otherwise we'll always finish second."
How does Agnelli deal with the eternal accusations? He shrugs: "From the north to the south, in Italy we never accept a verdict as a fair one. The losers always claim the justice system is unfair, and this is true in sports too."
Still, the widespread Italian suspicion that Juve controls the soccer system might explain the findings of a recent survey by pollsters Demos: Juventus is Italy's most beloved club, with 31 percent support nationwide, but it is also the most hated club, with 38 percent of Italian fans naming it their "least likeable team".
Could Juve do something to make itself less hated? "It's not possible," sighs Agnelli. "We have been averaging one Scudetto every three years for the last 30 years, so among fans of other clubs we are hated."
He adds, laughing: "We used to be very lovable, between 2006 and 2010." That was when Juventus was losing.
But it's one thing to be hated when you're one of the best teams on earth, like the Juve that little Andrea Agnelli encountered in the Paolo Rossi era. It must be dispiriting to be hated when you're merely the best of today's decaying Italian league.