When football historians look back at the changes that swept the Calcio landscape in the 2010 decade, they will certainly accord a place of the greatest importance to the story of Roma's self-constructed stadium.
It's one of the most crucial turning points in the globalisation of Italian football. It is also a fascinating and misunderstood story, of a man born in Boston trying to graft his crops onto the world's richest, deepest graveyard, reaping results that are at once bewildering, bewitching and depressing.
Though often dabbled with in the past, the idea of stadium built by Roma is intrinsically linked to the corporate American ownership that took over from the Sensi family in 2011. It was an adumbrative transition: Roma would become the first Serie A club in the hands of foreign ownership, but by no means the last – Inter would follow within two years, and Milan are (laboriously) working on it.
The project of the Stadio della Roma must be seen in the light of this transformation, one which involves a vast reconceptualization of football's business models. The once-central concept of the 'club' is losing pertinence compared to the notion of the 'brand', a virtual object free from territorial constraints and capable of driving business and sales anywhere in the world – including the colossal new markets in Asia, Africa and North America.
No-one should make the mistake of thinking that ticket-sales (the revenue of which Roma will finally be able to absorb in full) would be the main advantage of having a property stadium. Roma's 2016 match-day inflow was, after all, only €15m short of Juventus, who already own the J-Stadium.
This is a trivial difference, compared to the gulf in revenue from merchandising and sponsorship: €36m for the Giallorossi versus €102m for the Bianconeri, for a total difference of €66m. Roma's new ground will help them shorten that gap by giving them better means to control their brand, and by extension their commercial value.
In short, Roma will have total control over which events they host (sports and non), how these will be marketed and sold, and how the encircling business will be developed, including all third-party commercial operations.
If this still doesn't seem like a big deal, consider two exemplary details. Firstly, Roma still don't have a kit sponsor (they are, in fact, the only major European team in this condition). Ask yourself what kind of a deal they could get right now, as they remain bound to the Olimpico, and compare it to the contract they'll be able to get once they can stick any given logo on the flat of every seat.
Secondly, Roma were scalded these last two years by a major PR incident with their fans, regarding the setting up of internal barriers at the Stadio Olimpico. Consider how easily and how quickly things like this will be resolved, once authority on the matter shifts from the city to the club.
So the construction of their own stadium would be a colossal deal for the Lupi, no less than it was for Juventus (who have been practically unchallenged since completing theirs). The Capital club would plausibly consolidate their position as Italy's second power for one or two decades, whilst shrinking the gap with the Old Lady by as much as 50 per cent.
Such an irresistibly sweet deal, amplified by the marketing power of one the world's most famous and attractive cities, was always going to lure in foreign capital. And so James Pallotta – taking over as club President from Thomas DiBenedetto in August 2012 – rubbed his hands together and got to work.
Or he tried to – as everyone knows by now, the project suffered setback after setback, and still has a way to go before construction begins. The Timeline page on the Stadio della Roma website (which itself marks the style imported by the Americans: networked, modern, and full of simple-coloured optimism) gives a sense of how many hoops they had to jump through.
In December 2013 the club presented the project to then-Mayor Ignazio Marino. In June 2015 they submitted the dossier to the Rome City Council. Almost one year after that, they submitted the technical designs to the Italian sports committee (CONI), and the next month they submitted the technical dossiers to the city itself.
Three years are long enough to build the stadium – in Rome, that's how long it took before the submission phase was over. Then began the ping-pong game between Rome's different institutions: the city council, the region and the government (three entities which can all potentially block the project, not necessarily controlled by the same political parties) all deferred the final decision to each other.
The alacrity with which these displacements were conducted was bewildering. City council's Paolo Berdini declared that all juridical and technical aspects had been verified and passed on to the Regione (June 30, 2016). Within hours, the Regione released a statement saying that no, actually, they never received a thing, so everything was still in the hands of the council. When it came to procrastination, these people were ruthlessly efficient.
The 'stadium question' became a political tool. Rome's rising M5S star, the anti-establishment Virginia Raggi, led a campaign based on fighting corporate powers of the very type that were behind the Giallorossi project. She won the election for Mayor by dismissing questions about the Stadio della Roma, or for that matter the bid for the 2024 Olympics: 'Rome has problems of a very different kind'.
She was telling the truth, of course, although the problems she wanted to tackle were also the very same that hampered the American enterprise. What Pallotta initially failed to perceive – and what outsiders still don't get, when they complain about the clichés of 'bureaucracy and corruption' – is that the city of Rome is uniquely stratified.
And it is not stratified just literally – though it's certainly true that any time the builders start digging, they bump into the remains of some imperial villa or artefact (and this explains how the Romans saw three Popes swapping seats before the completion of the single underground station of San Giovanni – which is still in progress).
Rome is stratified socially, politically and culturally. You cannot turn a legal or logistical stone without finding yourself involved with one or two societies organised outside of all official channels. Pass a taxi licence reform in Italy, and watch hundreds of taxis besiege Piazza Venezia and force the city Mayor into a new compromise. Pass an education reform, and watch not two or three but 40 or 50 schools organise a co-ordinated, city-wide revolution.
People who characterise these unministered circles as 'the old Italian Mafia' miss the point completely. For the Mafia and the 'Ndrangheta themselves have the same trouble penetrating in Rome, crashing against the walls of an equally stratified, equally obdurate local criminality. Of the Italian cities, only Naples has interconnected sub-cultures that are as powerful and complex.
Thus, watching someone like Pallotta stride into an enterprise that would involve the city in its entirety, confidently talking of his business methods (developed in Boston), was akin to watching someone deliberately jump into the world's biggest spider-web. Experience this immaterial urban architecture only from the outside, and you'll never get a clue of how referential and indefinite everything is.
Here's one example, picked from many: the stadium was initially supposed to be built by real estate mogul Francesco Gaetano Caltagirone. He also happened to be the main private share-holder in the Acea Group, which manages water and electricity in Rome. Unfortunately his (mis)-management of this public agency led Mayor Raggi to oppose him, and he lost the stadium project to builder Luca Parnasi.
Parnasi in turn came under fire by the Press because – surprise, surprise – he owned some of the lands where the stadium will be built. The most vitriolic article denouncing this was published by Il Messaggero in September 2014, as the paper picked up the mantle of public transparency (and, very fittingly, published their editorial anonymously). Now who owns the particular paper which came out so fervently in defence of integrity? A publishing house called... Caltagirone Editore.
In all of this, Raggi herself was getting caught up in the web of dark threads going nowhere that make up the skeleton of the Roman city. No less a frustrated idealist than Pallotta, she could neither authorise nor block the stadium without going through doors that opened onto more doors.
And so by the time the project had gone through all these doors and windows and corridors and was finally approved, it had been very substantially altered. The commercial towers were gone, the transport links placed on hold, the traces of that great foreign idea ('cogito ergo negotium', I think therefore I do business) contorted or altogether wiped out.
Now a whole new project, designed within these parameters, must be conceived and submitted. And once the digging does start, Pallotta must be hopeful he doesn't find the remains of Julius Caesar's personal stables (it's not a stretch). There is, for sure, still a long way to go.
As the club itself becomes involved in peripheral ventures and public works, the Stadio della Roma is picking up layers before the first stone has even been set. No less than the Roman societies that remain untouched, unseen by the myriad tourists, this red and yellow stadium may never show its true colours.
Already this is starting to look less like a Boston business venture and more like a Roman story, toxic and romantic and forever going nowhere.