Uefa vice-president urges overhaul of Italian football

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Federation chief says clubs will miss out on foreign investment and global revenues

Michele Uva

Italian football is in need of a radical overhaul if the game is to attract crucial foreign investment and return to form after its shock failure to qualify for the World Cup finals, according to one of Europe’s most powerful football executives.

Michele Uva, vice-president of European football’s governing body Uefa, and director-general of Italian football federation Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (Federcalcio), told the Financial Times that the game’s leadership in the country was in “crisis”.

He said the country’s game needed a “rapid change of direction” and new investment to reverse its fortunes. Italian clubs are laggards in the competition for valuable international investment that has helped transform the fortunes of the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, allowing teams to pay for the best players and attract large international audiences.

The criticism comes at a sensitive time for Italy. The national side has won four World Cup competitions, most recently in 2006, but failed to qualify for this year’s finals.

“There was a period when we looked in the mirror admiring how beautiful we were instead of investing in young talent and infrastructure and technical staff,” Mr Uva said.

A growing wealth gap has seen Italian clubs fall behind European rivals, particularly when compared with English, German and Spanish sides. The last time an Italian club won the Champions League, Europe’s premier club tournament, was in 2010. Only Juventus and Napoli feature in the top 20 in Deloitte’s annual rankings of the world’s richest clubs, compared with 10 English teams.

Mr Uva said Italian football required long-term investment and investing today would only reap benefits over a period of four to eight years.

“The best case [scenario] would have been to invest after the World Cup win in 2006,” he said. “Now we have the worst case but we should take advantage of this crisis for a radical change of direction.”

There are signs of change, however. There has been a growing audience for the country’s football in China, resulting in Chinese investors buying two of its best-known clubs AC Milan and Inter Milan.

Italian football’s largest foreign audiences came from Germany and China in 2016 with more than 86m people in each those countries having watched an Italian national team match on a cumulative basis, according to a report from Federcalcio prepared by auditors PwC.

Federcalcio has also sought to clean up Italian football, which has been plagued for years by match-fixing and corruption scandals, with an eye to attracting foreign investment. In May 2016, it signed an agreement with the Italian interior ministry and the professional football leagues for the prevention of organised crime involvement.

It is also imposing increasingly tough financial requirements for clubs.

Among foreign owners in Italy are investor James Pallotta, co-owner of AS Roma, as well as co-owner of the Boston Celtics NBA basketball team. Inter Milan is owned by Chinese group Suning Holdings.

Mr Uva did not rule out US hedge fund Elliott Management becoming a majority owner of AC Milan. Its current owner, Chinese investor Yonghong Li is backed by high-interest loans from the US hedge fund.

Mr Uva’s comments come as Italian football’s two top jobs — president of the top league Serie A and president of Federcalcio are up for re-election.

He is standing for neither position and declined to comment on the candidates, but described the roles as traditionally being “seats of power”.

“I believe all the seats should be seats of responsibility,” he added. Among those standing for re-election is Carlo Tavecchio, the controversial former Federcalcio president who stepped down after the World Cup qualifying loss and was banned from office by Uefa in 2014 for racist remarks.

Rachel Sanderson e Murad Ahmed, Financial Times

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