If there is karma in football, it must work only some of the time. During last year’s darkest lockdown, observed by most of us outside Number 10 Downing Street, two club presidents plotted the European Super League, intended to preserve the riches of the global game for themselves and their invited guests.
In perpetuity. No qualification. Just American-style sports where once you are in, you are in, regardless of the fluctuations of relegation and promotion that Europeans, Africans, Asians and South Americans appreciate as rites won or lost on the playing fields.
It turns out there is no equality when it comes to karma. Less than a
year on, the chief conspirators Florentino Pérez and Andrea Agnelli are on nothing like an equal footing.
Pérez and his club Real Madrid grasped lockdown to accelerate his €525m renovation of the Santiago Bernabéu into the grandest multi-purpose stadium and real estate complex on earth.
At the same time, taking advantage of Barcelona’s financial implosion and
managing to persuade Agnelli to pay top dollar for the fading Cristiano Ronaldo, Pérez re-hired his former coach Carlo Ancelotti to get a tune out of ageing stars and put Madrid back on top of their league.
Agnelli’s fortunes have gone in the opposite direction. He, too, went back in time to re-hire Massimiliano Allegri, the coach he sacked in 2019.
However, while Allegri does what he can with what players he has, Juventus are struggling even to qualify for the Champions League. Juventus, “The Old Lady” of Torino, had owned the Serie A title for a decade. They now lie fifth in the league, behind the two Milan clubs.
The difference between Pérez and Agnelli comes down to cunning. Madrid’s president, the son of perfumers, built his own fortune. He studied civil engineering and, while his papa had put Florentino’s name down for Real Madrid membership at birth, the son moved on to serve on the city council gaining inside knowledge of how Madrid works while building (literally) his €2bn fortune.
And while the father adored the skills of Alfredo Di Stéfano and Paco Gento and Ferenc Puskas, his son admired and hired Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modrić, even the marketing icon David Beckham.
The fault of presidente Pérez was that he bought too many Galácticos – players of individual star quality regardless of the team’s needs. He then rotated coaches for failing to knit his purchases together, regardless of the old adage that a team needs artists and artisans.
It is not the worst fault in the world. Indeed Gianni Agnelli, the FIAT chairman who owned Ferrari and Juventus, once told me in his own living room that he “indulged” himself in signing players whose creativity pleased him.
Giampiero Boniperti, the former captain whom Agnelli appointed chairman, laughed at that.
“The trouble with l’Avvocato,” said Boniperti, referring to Agnelli by his popular title, “is he always buys me the finest coats when our need is trousers!” The paymaster bought No.10s Michel Platini, Pavel Nedved and Zidane when the team lacked players to do their running.
But that’s a digression. The real problem at Juve is that Andrea Agnelli has neither the business acumen nor the instinctive sporting grasp of his uncle Gianni. He is there by birthright and his Juventus is not remotely the giant that it was.
The younger Agnelli not only inherited Juve as an heirloom but was enticed into taking leadership of the European Club Association which had grown out of being a breakaway group of 14 elite clubs to an organisation that now negotiates for 220 clubs on the continent.
Pérez used Andrea Agnelli. The Spaniard, 74, persuaded the Italian, 46, that clubs such as theirs belonged to a select few. Their fame, Pérez has long argued, attracts the biggest fortunes to the game. Therefore they are entitled to the lion’s share of the money the world now throws at football.
Madrid indeed has sought grandeur ever since Santiago Bernabéu, a player and president in 1947, took out a bank loan together with another player to build a club, a stadium, a legacy that is truly almost beyond comparison. Bernabéu was the Pérez of his time – and more, because he could actually play and lead and score with the best of them.
Were he around today, the founder would approve of the institution that the master builder Pérez has taken on. Florentino Pérez buys the best, for
himself and for his club.
He builds on an industrial scale, and he is pushing the Bernabéu vision above and beyond where the founder might have stopped in the name of fair play.
That isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is myopic in that it ignores the basic tenet of merit. To most of us, even to the ambitious clubs who went along with the Super League (and no doubt will do again if it is presented with better guarantees than the initial sum put up by an American bank), that means that even if some clubs are truly elite in historical terms, they must forever earn the right to play in competitions.
Pérez will look around his shiny new stadium and, from what we have seen it might truly be a world leader in comfort and splendour. Agnelli, the younger, can barely keep hold of Paulo Dybala, his latest brooding superstar, let alone claim that Juventus is a world – or even an Italian – leader.