Lawyer course

US lawyer Joe Tacopina on the management of Italian football clubs

Joe Tacopina, one of America’s fiercest criminal defense attorneys, dreams of bringing Italian soccer club SPAL back to Serie A, a sports league currently enjoying great popularity among American investors.

From his office in Ferrara, a Renaissance town 20 miles west of Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region, Tacopina spoke to me about his ambitions as president of SPAL and shared some lessons keys he learned in more than a decade working as a top manager of four Italian football clubs.

Tacopina’s journey through Italian football

In 2011, when it was still rare for North American investors to take an interest in Italian football, Tacopina was part of a consortium that transformed AS Roma in the first Serie A club with American ownership.

He served on the AS Roma board as vice-president for four years before moving to Bologna and then Venice, where he set the enviable record of being the first president of Italian professional football to win three consecutive promotions (one in Bologna in 2014/15 and twice in two years in Venezia from 2015 to 2017).

In the summer of 2021, Tacopina took over SPAL, starting a new chapter in his journey in Italian football, which he defined in our previous interview as “one of the most undervalued properties in all of sport”.

All those years spent at AS Roma, Bologna, Venice and SPAL have given the Italian-born Brooklyn native Tacopina an invaluable insight into the pitfalls of the Italian professional football system.

“Understand that you come from a different world. This world is not like the others, especially the North American business world. It’s just different,” Tacopina warned. “If you come here thinking you’re going to break the mould, doing anything like we do in the United States, you’re going to get roughed up. And it’s not going to end well.

Tacopina, 56, strongly believes that experienced North American investors can make a difference in a football system – Italy’s – that lacks financial discipline in the management of many clubs. This know-how, however, must be applied gently, avoiding the risk of getting caught in the desperate attempt to challenge the status quo.

“If you come up with new ideas, like I do with my North American sports business model, and try to marry those ideas with the cultural institutions and traditions that are in place here, and you’re not trying to upset that basket of apples, then you have a chance to do well,” he concluded.

SPAL, one year later

In the first 15 months at SPAL, Tacopina estimates that he and his partners contributed approximately €20 million ($20 million) through Tacopina Italian Football Investment Srl. These resources financed, among other things, the renovation of the stadium, a real estate project with dormitories for the players of the academy and, last February, the acquisition of 100% of the club’s shares.

Like most Italian football clubs, however, Tacopina explained that SPAL continues to feel the financial repercussions of the pandemic. Because sustainability remains the club’s top priority, he said SPAL had taken significant cost-cutting measures compared to the 2021/22 season, with the wage bill seeing a 30% reduction for the Serie B campaign. In progress.

To be competitive in the league while working on a limited budget (the Sensi rank 13th out of 20 in Serie B for club market value), Tacopina and his team have put together a list made up largely of players that SPAL owns or has an obligation to buy: This strategy, Tacopina explained, aims to instill in the players a sense of belonging to the SPAL family, with the aim of building the kind of loyalty that he considers an essential ingredient for success at such a competitive level.

“It’s not about how much we spend,” Tacopina said. “That’s how we spend it.”

Ultimately, his idea of ​​structuring a football club draws inspiration from teams like Atalanta and Ajax, which over the years have managed to outdo each other at domestic and European level while relying on modest financial resources and, above all, avoiding red.

And after: Daniele De Rossi

After a sluggish start to the 2022/23 Serie B season, SPAL opted for a change of head coaching position, as the club announced with an official note a few weeks ago. The choice of new manager fell on 2006 FIFA World Cup champion Daniele De Rossi, one of AS Roma’s most representative midfielders when Tacopina was vice-president of the club.

“He’s one of my closest friends, I’ve known him for 13 years,” Tacopina said. “He’s a born leader, he’s a winner.”

De Rossi mentions the club’s plans, ambitions and fans, as well as the president’s personality, as the main reasons that made him accept SPAL’s offer for his first job as head coach. (De Rossi was assistant coach to Roberto Mancini in the Italian national team that won UEFA Euro 2020 last year).

Under De Rossi, SPAL will hope to give consistency to their results and climb the Serie B table, which currently sits them in 11th position after 12 games.

“I found incredible humanity, great devotion from the players and a serious club with a training center that makes you want to work 20 hours a day with facilities that would be the envy of even Serie A clubs,” said said De Rossi in a written interview. “We (De Rossi and Tacopina) talked about a project to develop and a clear path to follow in the near future.”