The theme of financial fair play has never been more pertinent than over the last several weeks. Since Manchester City were handed a two-year ban from the Champions League and fined €30m by UEFA, FFP has been catapulted back into the spotlight after years of sporadically peeking its head through the curtain.
By and large, FFP has been a major improvement to how teams across Europe are run, especially in Italy, where the decadent nineties had left several teams in ruins - or on the precipice of it - at the turn of the millennium. Serie A sides are now forced to live within their means, despite FFP impeding the growth of certain clubs.
It’s something that Fiorentina owner Rocco Commisso touched upon recently. The newest foreign (if he can be described as such) President to the league remarked that investing large amounts of capital into his newly acquired club is proving impossible because the Viola only make around €90m in revenue per year, with FFP restricting the club’s movement.
Commisso knows the only way to boost revenue is to build a new stadium in Florence, but given the infamously archaic bureaucratic system in Italy, Commisso is slowly resigning himself to the fact that a new stadium, or even modernising the Stadio Artemio Franchi, isn’t on the cards for the foreseeable future.
Yet Commisso shouldn’t lose all hope. He only has to look at Lazio and Atalanta, two of the leading lights in the league during this age of financial prudence. Both sides have demonstrated that it is possible to reach the highest echelons of domestic, and indeed European football, whilst balancing the books.
Lazio President Claudio Lotito has claimed several times in the recent past that his club have scaled the heights they have without a single euro of his own money put into the club. Lotito, one of the shrewdest owners in the Italian game, proudly trumpets that Lazio are completely self-funded, and live well within their means.
Irrespective of whether Lotito is being completely honest or not, given the state of the club he inherited in 2004 following the reckless years of Sergio Cragnotti, there is no doubting that the Biancocelesti are now self-sufficient. Their wage bill, as of this season, is the sixth highest in the league, around the €70m mark.
In stark contrast to the Cragnotti years, Lazio have never signed a player for more than €20m since Lotito’s arrival. Instead, director of sport Igli Tare identified older stars with considerable gas still left in the tank (Miroslav Klose, Lucas Leiva) combined with young players that can be developed with a view to selling them on (Felipe Anderson, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Keita Balde Diao, Stefan De Vrij).
This long-game approach, whilst frustrating in the beginning, is now bearing fruit. Only Juventus have been more successful in Italy in the past 10 years than Lazio, winning the Coppa Italia and the Italian Super Cup twice, with the biggest prize of the lot potentially within their grasp; a third Scudetto come May (that’s indeed if the season actually finishes in May).
Atalanta’s story is even more remarkable. If Lazio are the equivalent of a boxer punching above their weight class, then La Dea is Buster Douglas beating a peak Mike Tyson in Japan in 1990, such are the astounding levels of which they are exceeding expectations.
A team with the 13th highest wage bill in Serie A, Gian Piero Gasperini’s men are on the verge of reaching the quarter final of the Champions League, in their first attempt in the competition, and after losing their opening three games. All this whilst playing swashbuckling, yet at times kamikaze-esque, football.
There was a feeling that the Atalanta story peaked in 2016-17, when they finished fourth in Serie A to secure a Europa League spot for the following season. Narrowly losing to Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 32 in 2017-18, they also finished seventh in the league, and you felt that Gasperini had taken the side as far as he could.
Yet in retrospect, it was only the beginning. Atalanta retooled the side, made some smart acquisitions, like Duvan Zapata, Mario Pasalic and Pierluigi Gollini. They comfortably finished third in 2018-19, and are now on course for a second consecutive Champions League campaign, and in the process bringing in more valuable revenue.
The key to success in the stories of both sides is canny operating, and, most importantly, having patience, it’s worth pointing out that Lazio and Atalanta’s wage bill combined is still lower than Milan or Roma’s, two sides who haven’t won a major trophy in nearly a decade.
Both clubs have kept faith in their managers, both Gasperini and Inzaghi are closing in on four years at their respective clubs and are the two-longest serving coaches in Serie A. Whilst the Rossoneri and the Giallorossi push the panic button, change trainers and seemingly have a ‘year zero’ every season.
Sometimes, it pays to play the long-game.