Friday, 9 September 2011

In Bed With The Ultras: FSG’s Stealth Raid on Italy

The recent purchase of AS Roma by a Boston based investment group did not set the back pages on fire. The deal was reported in the business pages, with the main focus being on Roma becoming the first Italian club to fall into foreign hands. The newsworthy element of the deal for Liverpool FC is that the consortium’s leader, Thomas DiBenedetto, represents 1/13th of Fenway Sports Group.

Thomas DiBenedetto, Co-Owner of the Boston Red Sox

DiBenedetto bought the club using a separate investment company, “DiBenedetto AS Roma LLC”. There cannot be a direct link between FSG and Roma due to strict ownership rules preventing groups from controlling more than one club participating in a UEFA competition. It is safe to assume, however, that the new relationship between the boardrooms could hardly be closer.
It is both ironic and intriguing that the two football clubs who contested the European Cup Final in 1984 are now so closely tied, especially given the violence of the past three decades. The final in Rome is nostalgically remembered for Bruce Grobbelaar’s antics on the goal line, but many of the fans who were there have far more disturbing memories.
Following Liverpool’s win, large gangs of Roma’s “Ultrà Curva Sud” roamed the streets looking for victims to exert their revenge on. The Ultras showed no mercy, targeting families and children. A 13 year old boy was attacked with a machete and required over 200 stitches. Dozens of English fans were stabbed and the police were heavily criticised for offering no protection. It can be argued that the events in Rome acted as a catalyst for what happened at Heysel the following year.
The violence did not end there. In early 2001 Liverpool played Roma in a UEFA cup match and 14 fans were stabbed. Later that year the two clubs met in the Champions League and a further 5 Liverpool fans were stabbed. Over the next few years, fans of Real Madrid, Middlesbrough, Man United and Arsenal all visited Rome and experienced the gratuitous violence of the Ultras.

The Ultrà Curva Sud are massively influential. During the 2004 derby with Lazio, 3 leaders of the group walked onto the pitch, approached Francesco Totti and threatened to kill him if the game continued. Totti spoke to the referee and the game was abandoned. Soon after, the stadium was set on fire and a huge riot erupted outside.
These events do not show up on balance sheets or annual reports, but they are major issues that DiBenedetto will face as he attempts to return the club to its former glory.
It will be interesting to see how the business relationship with Liverpool develops, but one thing is for sure: However close the two clubs become at boardroom level, the relationship between the fans is broken beyond repair.

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