Agnelli Faces Reckoning of Bad Bet as His Soccer League Dream Implodes
(Bloomberg) -- Four years ago, Andrea Agnelli stood in the 74,000-seat soccer arena in Cardiff and witnessed his team, Juventus Football Club SpA, get smashed by Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
As painful as that 4-1 defeat might have been for Agnelli, the offspring of Italy’s preeminent industrial dynasty walked away with a useful lesson: to win, surround yourself with the best players and teams.
The next year, Agnelli, 45, followed through with a bold 100 million-euro ($120 million) bet, buying Portuguese superstar Ronaldo from Real Madrid. Then a few days ago, he came up with an even more audacious coup, hashed out with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who at 74 is almost 30 years Agnelli’s elder: a European Super League composed of a dozen permanent members. In a closed-shop arrangement, these top teams would share the financial spoils without the distracting matches against also-rans.
The concept began imploding just 48 hours after it was unveiled, buried under the weight of a massive backlash from fans, politicians and the sport’s organizers, who branded the idea as a greedy ploy that betrayed the spirit of soccer. That has exposed Agnelli to considerable reputational damage that threatens to engulf his wider family at a time when the clan needs to maintain good ties with the political establishment.
“Andrea Agnelli and the other Super League founders clearly underestimated the political consequences of their plan, which was just an attempt to fix their clubs’ financial issues,” said Enrico Valdani, professor emeritus at Milan’s Bocconi university.
Once the six English teams that had initially committed to the project pulled out, Agnelli had to concede that the league could no longer go ahead. It was a humiliating retreat, just hours after he’d told a family-owned newspaper that the teams had signed a “blood pact” and that the project had a “100% chance of success.” Agnelli was also forced Wednesday to step down from one of the most influential roles in soccer, the post of chairman at the European Club Association, or ECA. He was replaced by Paris Saint-Germain’s chief Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
Agnelli declined to be interviewed for this story and his spokesman declined to comment.
With the biggest revamp of European soccer in half a century lying in tatters, Agnelli faces the consequences of a wrong-way bet that badly misjudged the reaction. Perez, for his part, had sought to defend the move after the initial criticism, arguing that the league would do nothing less than save soccer.
But the two men never managed to win over the hearts of fans, who accused the league of trying to remove the most basic rule of the sport: that any team, regardless of its financial backing, can reach the pinnacle -- or indeed fade away.
After the plans became known over the weekend, the blowback was swift and brutal, and much of it was directed at Agnelli. Aleksander Ceferin, the head of the UEFA soccer body, publicly branded the Italian “a snake,” saying he had “never seen a person that would lie so many times and persistently.” Urbano Cairo, chairman of crosstown rival Torino FC, was cited in the La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper as saying of the league and of Agnelli that “it is a betrayal, he is Judas.”
The public anger now washing over Agnelli is very much the opposite of why he was brought on a decade ago: to return the storied but troubled club to calmer waters and its former glory. He took the job in 2010 at the behest of his cousin John Elkann, the head of the clan, with a mandate to reclaim the Italian championship following the team’s demotion in 2006.
Under Agnelli’s stewardship, Juventus won nine consecutive Italian titles. But efforts to make Juventus a profitable business for the family were less successful: the club was the only Agnelli business to post a loss in the last two years. While hardly a major component of the family’s sprawling business empire, the lack of financial returns raised pressure on Agnelli to consider a new way to monetize soccer.
Public opinion in Italy was overwhelmingly against the Super League project. Prime Minister Mario Draghi said in a statement on April 19 that the government strongly supports Italian and European soccer authorities’ preserving national competitions, aligning himself with Boris Johnson of the U.K, who also panned the league.
“Andrea Agnelli and other founders probably lacked the diplomacy, despite their project being pretty innovative,” said Carlo Alberto Carnevale Maffe, a professor of business strategy at Bocconi University. “Soccer is an industry to handle with care, it’s a dangerous topic.”
The open opposition comes at a delicate time for the Agnelli clan, which has always valued its close ties to the government.
Andrea Agnelli is the son of Umberto, who in turn is the brother of Gianni Agnelli, the revered Italian business leader known as “l’Avvocato,” or the lawyer. Elkann is a grandson of Gianni and oversees the family’s business, Exor NV.
The holding company controls Ferrari NV, truck and tractor maker CNH Industrial NV and is the biggest single investor in Stellantis NV, the company created by the combination of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot. Exor also owns the reinsurer Partner Re, media group GEDI and is the biggest investor in The Economist magazine.
Elkann, 45, is known for his hands-off approach, letting managers get on with their jobs and not interfering beyond setting a broad strategy.
It’s a style that has served the family well, particularly with Fiat and Ferrari under Sergio Marchionne, who led the Italian carmaker out of near bankruptcy in 2004 and transformed it into a global player.
Agnelli’s role at Juventus is different, not least because he is family. While the club is financially relatively insignificant for the wider fortune of the clan, it’s one of the group’s most visible assets.
The family tends to stick together through difficult situations. Elkann and Agnelli hold a bond as members of a new generation thrust into key roles after John’s grandfather and Andrea’s father passed away within less than two years of one another almost two decades ago.
Over the years, Elkann has managed to navigate the empire’s interest to keep key institutions on its side.
Just last week, he abandoned talks to sell the Iveco truck unit to a Chinese suitor amid opposition from the Italian government. Earlier this year, he completed the merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot to create one of the top global carmakers.
And over the weekend, things were looking up even for Ferrari and its quest to reassert itself in the Formula 1 race circuit. Its two drivers finished in fourth and fifth place, a respectable result for a team that has struggled for years.
Shortly thereafter, news of Agnelli’s Super League plans trickled out, and all hell broke loose.
“I am sorry for Andrea as I’ve known him forever,” Evelina Christillin, a member of UEFA committee who is close to the Agnelli family, said in an interview on Italian television on April 20. “But I think this time he made the wrong decision.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.