London- “We Italians need to feel like we’re under pressure, we need to see an enemy,” says Gianluca Vialli. “The pressure is a combination of expectation, scrutiny and consequences. That’s why we’re so good at managing, because we grew up experiencing pressure all the time. When Antonio came to England I think he almost felt it was easier but exciting at the same time.”
Vialli is well-placed to discuss the success of Antonio Conte (was he surprised when his old Juventus team-mate won the Premier League at the first time of asking? “No, no and no”). The former Chelsea manager, the first Italian to manage in the Premier League, had won everything in the club game by the time he moved to London in 1996. He became a star of the English game too, winning fans first with his pugnacious style of play, later with his urbane personality.
He remains equally distinctive today. When we meet in a lounge at Stamford Bridge, Vialli is dressed in a royal blue peaked cap, open-necked shirt and waistcoat, tan chinos rolled halfway up the calf and boat shoes with no socks. Half Guy Ritchie, half Marcello Mastroianni, it is thoroughly Anglo-Italian. So when Vialli speaks about the English game, he does so with a rare perspective. He knows what it means for an Italian to bring success to Chelsea. When he insists the Premier League is the most entertaining in the world because the fans make it that way, it is not necessarily the flattery of a guest.
“They say the Premier League is best league in the world. Or Roy Keane says we are brainwashed into believing it. He might be right. But I can definitely say it’s the most entertaining league. I’ve played here and managed here, and when you walk on the pitch the atmosphere brings the best out of you. So that’s already a plus. But the style of football in England is also affected by the atmosphere the fans create. It’s breathtaking, it’s 120mph. Yes, there’s a lot of errors, yes from a tactical point of view maybe it’s not the best, but in terms of entertainment … This is why the product is so amazing and why it is sold for so much money. I think the fans should get some credit for that.”
There is no doubting Vialli means what he says. It is why my eyebrow did not rise to its full height when he went on to describe it as the motivation behind a new business venture. Alongside another London-based European, Fausto Zanetton, Vialli has founded a company that looks to bring crowdfunding to professional sports.
“When I say what I do now, I say I work for Sky Italia but also, because of what I owe to football, I look out for things that are eventually going to make it a better game,” Vialli says. “Our business is about giving football clubs the necessary finance to build something that is not just 11 players on the pitch but everything that goes with that. Our business is about making clubs more sustainable.”
The company is called Tifosy and it claims to have raised more than £1m for football clubs. Crowdfunding seems a model suited to sport – “The great thing about crowdfunding in sports is there are already crowds,” says Zanetton. Tifosy has raised money for a new stand at Stevenage and the pioneering safe-standing enclosure at Shrewsbury Town. In turn, clubs can offer investors rewards (ie you give me money, I’ll give you a signed T-shirt) but on Tifosy they can also sell debt, in the form of micro-bonds, or even equity. Tifosy in turn takes between 6-8% in commission from the clubs.
For Vialli crowdfunding provides a chance for fans to take a stake in their clubs. “We’re not talking about fans owning the club, we’re talking about fans owning a share of the club,” he says. “A share that would give them a seat at the table. Clubs have sponsors. They are just there for commercial reasons but the club calls them partners. Then you have the fans. The fans are emotionally involved, they are loyal, and the clubs call them customers. I think fans owning a share of the club would mean the owners know what ‘customers’ really think and feel.”
There is a difference between getting to say your piece and having an influence, of course. Numerous small stakeholders make for unwieldy organisation. The owners of clubs, meanwhile, are not always to be trusted by their fans. Vialli and Zanetton say they have refused to work with clubs whose ambitions do not meet Tifosy’s principles.
In the end crowdfunding may be less about creating a new model of ownership than providing a new way for fans to show they care. For example, Community Shares, the crowdfunding company that works with grassroots clubs (and has raised more than £7m), has observed fans are far more likely to stump up to save a club from going out of business than they are to invest in something less urgent such as, say, new training facilities.
This, intriguingly, may also apply to those fans who never go to the stadium. The explosion of international interest in English football is really what makes businesses such as Tifosy viable. As Vialli puts it: “You’ve got 40,000 supporters going to the stadium but 1,000 times more available through the internet. I think in a way there’s more of a desire to get involved [from] the fans that are not regularly coming to the stadium. They think: ‘I can’t get to the stadium because I live 6,000 miles away but I really want to feel like I’m part of the club.’”
A Tifosy campaign for Bradford City raised donations from 20 countries. A recent scheme on behalf of Parma, a club in Serie B, managed 40.
“Italian football has a lot of appeal, even though it must improve,” Vialli says. “We are always moaning about English football but Italy should be the same. We complain ‘they’ve got more money’. Yes, that’s true. But why? Because they’ve got a better product that they sell abroad. If our stadiums were better, if there was less violence, if it were perceived as a clean game, less tactical perhaps …” Doing down tactics? Gianluca Vialli really has gone native.
The Guardian Sport