London – What kind of people do you want to have running your football club? That’s the question fans of teams as different as Arsenal, Blackburn Rovers, Coventry City and Leyton Orient are asking themselves. Whether faltering just out of range of ultimate success or threatened with a plunge into oblivion, those supporters are turning their anger on owners they see as variously incompetent or delinquent.
For fans of Juventus, the answer is simple. As Paulo Dybala wheeled away after scoring the first of his two beautiful goals against Barcelona in the Italian champions’ stadium on Tuesday night, the TV director switched to a shot of celebrations in the directors’ box, where Andrea Agnelli, the club’s president, was sharing hugs with a small group including his second cousin, John Elkann.
Elkann, 41, is the chairman of the Fiat empire, which was founded in 1899 by his great-great grandfather, Giovanni Agnelli. He is the great-grandson of Edoardo Agnelli, the first member of the family to take control of Juventus back in 1923. His grandfather, the charismatic and politically powerful Gianni Agnelli, was its president from 1947-54 and a friend of zebra-striped heroes from John Charles to Michel Platini.
Six years ago Elkann handed the presidency of the club to his second cousin, who happens to be his exact contemporary in age. The son of Gianni Agnelli’s brother Umberto, the club’s honorary president from 1970 until his death in 2004, Andrea Agnelli oversaw the construction of a new stadium and the winning of five consecutive league titles under Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri, with a sixth on the near horizon.
For 94 years the club has been in the same hands, and although the majority of the hundreds of thousands of local workers employed by Fiat during that time were probably fans of Torino, Juventus built an enormous following among Italians both at home – particularly in the poor south – and in exile. Give or take a couple of referee-rigging scandals, one of which saw them relegated for the first time in 2006, the Agnelli dynasty has enjoyed almost a century of success.
Family members are visible at every match, maintaining a tradition of close involvement that was illustrated when the Gazzetta dello Sport, previewing Tuesday’s match, spoke to two men involved in previous meetings between Juventus and Barcelona. Paolo Montero, the tough Uruguayan defender who broke the Serie A record for red cards and is now coaching in Argentina, was reminded that the current president had named him as his favourite Juventus player. “I thank him,” he said. “He could have chosen Zidane, Del Piero or one of the other superstars, but he chose a ‘normal’ one like me. Maybe that’s because I represented the club’s desire to fight and win.”
The Scottish striker Steve Archibald recalled the night in 1986 when he made his way to the dressing room in Juventus’s old Stadio Communale after scoring the decisive away goal for Terry Venables’ Barcelona in a European Cup quarter-final. “A door opened,” he said, “and out came a tall, elegant figure in a magnificent overcoat, with five or six people clearing a path for him. He stopped and offered me his hand and said (in English): ‘Good goal.’ That was Gianni Agnelli, just as elegant in his mentality.”
Are you listening, Stan Kroenke of Arsenal, the Venky’s bunch at Blackburn, Francesco Becchetti of Orient or those faceless Sisu hedge fund managers who are dragging Coventry to the brink of extinction? Do you see what good ownership can mean to a club and to those who give it their lifelong allegiance? Do you understand that such stewardship requires calmness, consistency, and a sensitivity to the character of the club and its community?
Roman Abramovich certainly does. Whatever you think of how he came by his billions, he and his Chelsea lieutenants have been mostly swift and perceptive in their decisions, accepting the cost of dealing with problems as soon as they appear before moving on with the next solution. From the somewhat rackety institution presided over by the Mears family and Ken Bates, the west London club has been transformed into a formidable power via a process of which the spectacular Herzog & de Meuron stadium, a giant concrete sea anemone, will represent the final stage.
It makes a difference that Abramovich is often to be seen at Stamford Bridge, sharing the emotions of the team and their fans, having made the short journey from his Kensington mansion. Although he may not speak in public, he makes it clear that he cares. One small but symbolic consequence of his takeover was that for the first time in many years the club’s former players, snubbed by Bates, were welcomed back as honoured guests.
The venture could go badly wrong, of course, were some political upheaval to rupture Abramovich’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and undermine his status in the world of business. But that reflects the underlying threat to all top-level English clubs with foreign ownership, alongside the fear that a slump in the Premier League’s global popularity could induce those benefactors to take their investment elsewhere.
Few clubs can enjoy the extreme good fortune of a Juventus or a Chelsea, whether bankrolled by the old money of aristocrats or the new wealth of oligarchs. But even at less exalted levels, apparently hopeless situations can be rescued. Leeds United seemed to be in freefall until the chaotic Massimo Cellino sold half his shares to another Italian, Andrea Radrizzani, who is supporting the sensible work being done by their latest manager, Garry Monk. The story of Brighton & Hove Albion, a single goal away from dropping out of the league altogether in 1997, is one of steady revival under the poker player and property investor Tony Bloom, whose regime may lead the club, with its shiny new stadium, to the Premier League as soon as next week.
At Crystal Palace, the businessman Steve Parish led a consortium that enabled the club to flourish after narrowly avoiding bankruptcy six years ago. Like Ben Robinson, who has spent 40 years as chairman guiding Burton Albion from non-league to Championship football, Parish seems to recognise that an emphasis on strong and constructive links with the community comes only a narrow second to making correct football decisions.
What fans really want from an owner, whatever his or her background, is the sense of an authentic personal commitment. The vacuum left by its absence tends to be filled, as can been seen in the season’s final stages, by a cynicism that stinks the place out.
The Guardian Sport