The emergence of Italian provincial football

“Facing Real Madrid in the Champions League for us is like going to university,” Antonio Percassi said on Monday. “We must face it with humility, remembering that we are a provincial team that plays with another that has made the history of football.”

Antonio is the president of Atalanta de Bergamo and his son Luca is the managing director. Both were club players. This Wednesday, the Percassi clan, the Bergamo pole of construction, textile and cosmetic companies, will act as host in the brand new box of the Gewiss stadium, recently acquired and renovated by the club after an investment of 40 million euros, made with part of the 370 million that since 2015 entered with the sale of players. “The most important thing is good scouts,” warns the patriarch. Its international recruitment network has turned the sports city of Zingonia into one of the leading factories for Italian football talent, as well as a huge source of wealth. His participation in the Champions League for the second consecutive year reveals a particular phenomenon.

The family-run and “provincial” model, as the Percassi say, has become a competitive advantage capable of withstanding the depression that has plagued Italian football since the financial crisis of 2007. Where giants like Milan, Inter , Rome or Naples, Atalanta arrives, transformed into the brightest exponent of a current that also includes Sassuolo or Udinese.

Giampaolo Pozzo’s Udinese was the pioneer. “We were innovative in creating an international fabric of scouts when there was no Internet and access to player information was limited,” says Magda Pozzo, daughter of Giampaolo, a graduate in Business Administration and director of Udinese. “At first the scouting it was the key to our economic growth, because no one had a scouting network like ours and this created a trend among small and medium-sized clubs ”.

Since 2007, the year of the beginning of the great recession, Udinese played twice in the Champions League, bought players worth 300 million euros and sold for 554 million. With the income, the Pozzos transformed the club into a business attraction center that brings together the gigantic network of medium and small companies that are part, not only of the economic engine of Friuli, but of all of Italy.

“We innovate in recruitment and we continue to innovate in all the club’s activities to overcome the traditional view that the football business depends on results on the field,” warns the administrator. “We were the first to own a stadium, together with Juventus. The first who believed that the stadium should become a social center for activities that go beyond the game. When my father thought about it it was a new concept; 15 years later everyone says that having a stadium is the future of the economic sustainability of football ”.

“In 2007 we were recognized for the scouting, and in 2015 for the stadium; and now clubs like Atalanta have replicated our strategy more successfully than we have ”, concludes Magda Pozzo. “The pandemic is a tragedy but we must see it as an opportunity. We were focused on match day billing and now we have discovered that you can grow in another way, increasing the audience and the sense of belonging through digital channels. It is no coincidence that since last summer we have closed important agreements with large companies such as Renault or Ryanair. Studies said that we would lose 30% of the turnover; and that it would take us six years to get it back. That’s probably true for the big clubs. If we act with imagination we can maintain the income prior to the pandemic ”.

Professor of the Department of Administration and Technology of the Faculty of Economics of the Bocconi University of Milan, Alessandro Minichilli is part of a team who has spent years studying Italian family businesses. “They tend to close to foreign capital,” he observes. “Not only is control familiar, but management is too. Two-thirds of our small and medium-sized businesses are family-run. This, in the complexity of a globalized world, implies the risk of a limit, but it can also be an advantage in times of crisis. “In difficult moments they are more elastic. They resist blows better, recapitalize themselves and protect their workers more. This gives them one more march compared to the multinationals ”.

“Our model is also familiar in the calcium”Says Minichilli. “Football clubs are the parable of the Italian business world: they are not very open to foreign capital. They feel they can manage small companies, like Atalanta, well. With inferior financial means compared to the others, they compensate it with organization, efficiency, passion … It is a trait of the entrepreneur of the Italian industry. So, proportionally, we have few truly strong multinationals. This also happens in football: on the one hand we see clubs that with this model achieve great performance; but we don’t have many teams like Manchester United, or PSG, with a multinational stamp both in capital and in management ”.

Passed the boom from the 80s and 90s, the old calcium it regenerates from deeper cultural roots than football. The Atalanta that receives Madrid is the manifestation of a phenomenon of survival.