“It’s a long story,” says Giampaolo Pozzo, as he recalls why he decided to buy Italian football club Udinese Calcio 36 years ago.
Pozzo’s story is longer than most elite football stories. At 81 years old, he is the longest-serving president in Europe’s top five leagues.
Under his leadership, Udinese, from the northern Italian city of Udine (population 100 thousand), became one of the European footballers.
The club played in the Italian Serie A, Serie A, for 28 consecutive seasons. I have qualified for the European competition 11 times. Just as impressive in an industry where it is easy to lose money, it breaks even or makes a small profit.
Pozzo was the driver of Udinese’s vast international exploration network which found many undervalued players to develop and later sell for a profit. He was also a pioneer in the increasingly popular multi-club ownership strategy.
The story begins, however, with a boy watching his local club.
Search the world for players
Pozzo has been a “big fan” of Udinese since childhood, he told me in an exclusive interview. He remembers standing in the stands watching the team in Serie A, the third division.
Pozzo went to Freud’s family gadget-making company, which his grandfather had started. He developed the company before it was sold to the German multinational company Bosch in 2008.
When Udinese celebrated its 125th birthdayThe tenth Anniversary of last year, having financial difficulties, he bought Pozzo and some other businessmen in 1986. He later became the sole owner.
Initially, the goal was to search the world for players with the ability to sponsor and then sell to help balance the books.
“Udinese’s goal has always been and always will be to discover great talent,” says Pozzo.
“This is fundamental to having a sustainable club.”
The list of talent acquired cheaply and sold for profit is long. The duration of approximately each transition period increases.
In the past five seasons, Udinese has received 235.5 million euros ($227.1 million) in transfer fees, according to Transfermarkt.
A recent example is Rodrigo de Paul, who joined Atlético Madrid for 35 million euros in July 2021. Udinese had bought him for 10 million euros. Twelve months later, Atletico returned with €20 million for Nahuel Molina. Udinese had chosen him on a free transfer.
Among the many examples over the years, Alexis Sanchez has been one of the most prominent. Udinese scouts discovered the Chilean striker when he was 16 years old playing in his homeland. In 2006, he was signed for €3.5 million but was sent twice on loan before arriving at Udine. Three seasons later, he was sold to FC Barcelona for a fee equal to ten times what Udinese had paid.
Pozzo says Udinese began “investing a lot” in its scouting network in the early 1990s, creating a network of players far and wide. While many clubs were still dependent on contacts in their local areas, Pozzo built a room where his scouts could watch videos of matches from all over the world.
Today, Scouts have more sophisticated tools. There is also greater competition from the clubs that “copied” the Udinese model. Pozzo says the continued arrival of talent in Udinese – and recent sales – means diamonds can still be discovered.
“The landscape has changed now because there are platforms like Wyscout and maybe also the richest clubs can see a player quickly and make more money to get the player,” he says.
“But it is essential to have a great scouting division. You can’t just look at a player on the video. You have to be able to understand the potential of the player. Our scouting division is one of the best in the world.”
The pioneer of multi-club ownership
Pozzo was one of the first owners to follow a multi-club model. In 2009, he bought the Spanish club Granada, and in 2012, he bought the English club Watford.
Granada, which moved from the third tier to La Liga, where it stayed for five consecutive seasons, was sold in 2016. Watford, who reached the Premier League and FA Cup final during Pozzo’s tenure, is now owned by his son Gino.
Pozzo talks about the “positive synergy” that has been created between clubs, especially in areas such as player trading and sharing of technical skills. At one point, Granada had 14 players on loan from Udinese.
While multi-club models have generated controversy, particularly criticism that smaller clubs in the group become “feeders” for larger clubs, it is a strategy that is growing in popularity.
“I was one of the first to own more clubs, but we see this phenomenon is increasing and could be a new direction for football,” says Pozzo.
Research released last year found that 156 clubs were part of 60 multi-club ownership groups worldwide, in which owners or major shareholders own stakes in two or more teams. Chelsea co-owner Todd Boelly recently revealed the intent to build a multi-club network, pointing to Portugal and Belgium as potential destinations for teams.
Move to international owners in the first division
Another transformation that Pozzo witnessed in Italian football. Where most of the clubs were once owned by local businessmen and families, half of the 20 Serie A clubs are now majority owned by international investors. North American investors or groups own nine clubs.
Pozzo says he has not received any offers for Udinese and indicates that he is not interested in getting any.
“They (the international owners) are positive because it helped increase interest in Italian football. Like, for example, the last decade in the Premier League where investors came from Arab countries and the United States to invest in English football,” says Pozzo.
“This can spark new experiences and perhaps new ideas in Italian football.”
The late 80’s and 90’s were a golden age for Italian football. Its clubs attracted the best players in the world and dominated European competition. However, today it is the fourth highest income-producing domestic competition, after the English Premier League, La Liga, and the German Bundesliga.
There has been talk of following up La Liga and France’s Ligue 1 in signing a deal with private equity to unlock more funds for the clubs.
Pozzo is cautiously optimistic and says Italian teams should make new investments, including in stadiums. The Dacia Arena in Udinese was extensively renovated and reopened in 2016.
“Italy is certainly going through a difficult period now. Over the past 10 years, we have had a gap between the Premier League or La Liga,” says Pozzo.
But now, thanks to our traditions, new ideas, and investors, we’re starting to work on bridging that gap.
“Private ownership could represent an opportunity to bring new capital into the league and possibly increase the attractiveness of Italian football.”
Udinese returns to European competition
His first concern is Udinese. The club has not finished in the top half of the table since 2013, but they have started this season in style and are third after seven games.
The management strategy will not change. Pozzo’s priority is to invest in the professionalization of club management and bring in players to create a strong squad without risking Udinese’s financial future.
“It is not easy to compete with the biggest clubs for a club the size of Udinese, but we are always working and we will work even harder to fill that gap,” he says.
“We are making a lot of effort in the past few years to get back step by step to compete with the big clubs, and that is the ambition.
“The goal in the short and medium term is to get back into (playing) European competition.”
After nearly four decades as president, and even longer as a fan, does Pozzo still get nervous watching Udinese? Do you still celebrate when? Le Zebrite (The Little Zebras) scores a goal and suffers when conceding?
“It’s always the same,” Pozzo says with a smile. “It’s always the same passion.”