Pozzo took over Udinese over 35 years ago and as the club celebrates its 125th birthday, it’s clear that they’re a template for other small teams to follow when it comes to keeping up with richer opponents. Dino Panato/Getty Images
When Giampaolo Pozzo acquired Udinese in 1986, the world was a distinctly different place. Former UEFA president Michel Platini was still playing and had recently won his third Ballon d’Or. Cristiano Ronaldo was still in diapers. “Top Gun” was in the theatres and Genesis’ “Invisible Touch” in your Walkmans. The Cold War was a thing; email was not.
Pozzo is the longest-serving president of any top flight clubs in Europe’s Big Five leagues, and Udinese have spent 29 of the 35 seasons with him at the helm in Serie A. This would be remarkable enough for a city of 100,000 in the far northeast of Italy, but when you consider that in that time frame they also finished in the top four on four occasions all while breaking even or turning a small profit, the story of Udinese — who celebrated their 125th anniversary on Nov. 30 — becomes something else.
It becomes a manual for how the little guy can punch above his weight — way above his weight — year after year, decade after decade. It’s also enabled Udinese to thrive in an ecosystem simply not designed for clubs their size. And if you know that a city named Udine exists, it may well be thanks to their football club.
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Pozzo bristles at this when I raise the point. Like most folks from the Friuli region of Italy, he’s not the type to toot his own horn, though he will tell you about his region. He says he’s proud of Udinese and their 125 years of tradition, but suggests Udine is known for other things, too, citing Prosciutto di San Daniele (the friulano take on Parma ham), the Frecce Tricolori (the Italian Air Force’s aerobatic team) and the Tiepolo galleries (featuring frescoes by the Renaissance artist Giambattista Tiepolo, who was actually from Venice). You nod out of politeness, but you suspect he’s being modest.
To many, Udinese Calcio probably trumps ham, air shows and frescoes. The funny thing is that Udinese arguably first got on the global football map back in 1983, when they signed the legendary Zico from Flamengo for around $4 million. It made him the second most expensive player in history, and the idea that Brazil’s second-greatest goal scorer at the time should swap the country’s most popular club for this tiny Italian outpost, a half-hour drive from the border of what is now Slovenia, blew people’s minds.
That transfer was under the previous owner, a local entrepreneur named Lamberto Mazza, whose approach would turn out to be very different from Pozzo’s, whose philosophy avoided those sorts of pricey, glamour signings. Instead, Udinese focused on what they came to be known for: massive investment in scouting — often in places where others did not look — tight budgets, with a willingness to spend for the right guy, patience and careful analysis.
“We think it’s a sustainable system, but you need careful planning and years of work and know-how,” Pozzo says. “And you have to correctly allocate your resources. We looked for players who are willing to come to Udine, who are young and talented and who are enthusiastic about being here. They want to do well here because they know that we can be a springboard to a bigger club.”
Buy low, sell high. It sounds so simple. This past summer, Udinese did it again by selling goalkeeper Juan Musso to Atalanta and midfielder Rodrigo De Paul to Atletico Madrid. Both players were acquired for less than $8m combined, then were allowed to join other clubs for around $60m.
You could chalk it up to good fortune if not for the fact that over the years, Udinese have done it time and again. Marcio Amoroso (signed for €4m, left for €30m), Alexis Sanchez (signed for €3.5m, left for €30m), Juan Cuadrado (signed for €4m, left for €20m), Piotr Zielinksi (signed for €90k, left for €17m), Allan (signed for €3.5m, left for €12m)… the list goes on and on. Udinese’s player trading can read like a successful Venture Capital fund, full of 3Xs, 5Xs and 10Xs.
Udinese have completed in Europe in 14 of the past 24 seasons with smart scouting and talent development. Said Pozzo, ‘sometimes you have to be brave and believe in what you’re doing.’ Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images
“The goal is to be financially sustainable and to be back in Serie A the following season,” Pozzo says. “Of course, sometimes we’ve been lucky enough that the young talents we’ve discovered surpassed all expectations. And when that happened, we achieved great results, like our two third-place finishes or simply qualifying for European football.”
It also happens, occasionally, when you hang on to your best players rather than cashing in. The ultimate example — and, to this day, the player closest to Pozzo’s heart — is Antonio Di Natale, who would score 191 goals in 12 seasons for the club.
“He arrived as a good player from Empoli, and he became a superstar here,” he says. “We had plenty of offers for him and, of course, at one point, Juventus made him a very generous offer. But he said no. I’ll never forget that loyalty. And of course I’ll never forget what he did for us on the pitch.”
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Typically, Pozzo rather underplays it, but Udinese have qualified for European competition in 14 of the past 24 seasons. To do that while balancing the books and losing your best players each season is, for a club that size, equivalent to winning the league, yet there’s an important wrinkle to their approach. When they think they’ve found the right guy, they go all-in and trust their judgement. It’s how they signed a 17-year-old Sanchez from Chilean side C.D. Cobreloa back in 2006, beating out competition from bigger clubs like Real Madrid and Manchester United.
“That was a case where you had a young player who we’d followed for many years, but had suddenly become very expensive [to sign] because everyone could see his talent,” Pozzo says. “So we made what for us was a big investment, and we leveraged our knowledge of the player and the league, as well as our track record in developing players over others who maybe offered more money. Sometimes, you have to be brave and believe in what you’re doing.”
Sustaining that model gets harder every year. With the exception of the top 10-12 clubs in Europe, all of whom possess deep pockets and compete for top silverware every year, everybody preaches value signings, the act of buying low and selling high. And everybody tries to gain an edge to do it, whether it’s via scouting networks or analytics or feeder clubs.
Di Natale, left, is one of Pozzo’s greatest success stories, and the rare example of an all-world talent that they decided to keep. Dino Panato/Getty Images
Udinese’s edge 20 years ago came from the fact that they received hundreds and hundreds of VHS tapes of games from every corner of the globe every week and painstakingly went through them, following up by sending scouts all over the planet. Today, a Wyscout subscription will get you all of that information with just a few clicks. And you can Zoom with whoever you like, whenever you like.
“Without question, competition has increased, it’s much more difficult,” he says. “We try to keep up, we try to be smart, to continue improving. There’s so much technology out there, so much information, so much that goes into recruiting effectively. But that’s our philosophy. It’s the path we’ve chosen, and it’s how we can continue to compete.”
When Pozzo took over at Udinese, Serie A was entering its Golden Age, the 15-year period when Italian clubs dominated European football. From Platini to Diego Maradona, from Marco Van Basten to Lothar Matthaus, from Gabriel Batistuta to Zico, they were all in one place. Things have changed in the modern era, and for the past decade or more, Serie A has fallen firmly behind the Premier League and LaLiga. Pozzo is hopeful that this will change.
“We’re not where we were — clearly, we didn’t grow at the rate of other leagues who have now passed us in terms of revenue and appeal,” he says. “I think we’re all — all of us who work in Italian football — responsible for this decline, to some degree. The whole system of Italian football wasn’t working and that’s our responsibility, we have to own it.
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“That said, I think things have improved in the last few seasons,” he adds. “We’ve seen new investment, we’ve introduced new rules and controls to make the system more rigorous and more transparent. Today, for example, it’s impossible, at least in theory, for a club to bankrupt [like happened to Fiorentina, Parma and Lazio, among others].
“There’s more work to be done, because there are more discrepancies to be fixed, but we’re moving in the right direction. That’s why I was completely against the Super League, for example. It would have pulverised a system and starved it of resources. We don’t need revolutions — we need to continue perfecting a system that has served us for more than a century.”
Pozzo’s grandfather started the family business in 1906, manufacturing industrial woodworking and tool-making machinery. His father grew it and Pozzo expanded it further, getting involved in electrical appliances and building plants all over the world, including China and the United States. It was his life’s work and, in 2008, he sold it to Bosch, the German multinational. Now, it’s about managing the family assets and channeling his passion into football.
“I have a passion: I am a football fan,” he says. “When you’re a fan, every week you’re tied to the result and you think about it and time passes… given the state of the world we live in, maybe it’s better to get attached to simple things, like football. It allows me to escape from the mundane. If I weren’t here thinking about Udinese, at my age, what would I do? I’ve already been around the world, I’m 80 years old, I just want to chill and watch my team.”
Sustainable passion. That’s how you get to 80. It’s also how your club gets to 125.