It’s hard to imagine iconic Juventus ever being run by anyone other than the Agnellis, one of Italy’s ultra blue-blooded clans whose industrial conglomerate has an economic bond, directly or indirectly, with just about every Italian. Or Berlusconi actually letting go of his prized possession AC Milan. Rarely, it does happen. After the death of legendary family patriarch Franco Sensi, the heavily indebted Sensi family sold its crown jewel AS Roma to an American led consortium. But generally, in Italy it is very uncommon for a giant club like Inter Milan to change ownership. After months of negotiation, Italian media reports a deal has been agreed by the controlling Moratti family to sell 70% of Inter to Indonesian billionaire businessman Erick Thohir for about $400 million. With no known financial problems, it is puzzling why owner and president Massimo Moratti, whose family owns 98.7% of Inter, is selling. Could this be an indication of a greater problem, of looming economic turmoil in Italian calcio?
High profile ownership changes are more common outside of Italy. Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea is probably the most familiar. Liverpool changed hands in recent years after an acrimonious end to the disastrous Hicks-Gillette reign. Arsenal is now also owned by an American billionaire who edged out a Russian billionaire for control of the club, though Arsene Wenger still runs the club absolutely as he sees fit. Man City, Malaga in Spain and high profile PSG are now in the hands of Arab sheiks with too much oil money on their hands. But in Italy most clubs have deep traditions and family ties that preserve their character through economic and social changes in the world.
Moratti sold at a time when it is well known that Serie A is no longer the top championship in Europe, as it had been in the 80s and 90s. Big Italian clubss cannot compete economically for players with English, German and even the top Spanish clubs. Juventus and Milan have resorted to signing free agents or players at give-away prices and even then are struggling to pay their salaries. Kaka was sold by Milan to Real Madrid for $75 million and came back for virtually nothing, while also cutting his salary from 10 million euros / year to two. But the problems of the big clubs in Italy are nothing compared to the smaller clubs that are in a perpetual struggle with debt to stay afloat. Like in Spain, where all but a handful of top clubs are heavily indebted, Italian soccer has its economic day of reckoning on the horizon. Perhaps aware of this and aware of his prospects of putting together a competitive Inter, Moratti decided to cash out before that day arrives. He will maintain strong ties to the club and remain a political influence in Italy with a 30% interest, but changes will surely follow a new owner. The deal has been agreed, but not signed and sealed yet, leaving open the possibility of a last second intervention.