‘All or nothing’ is the title of the documentary about the Italian top club Juventus, which premiered last week on Amazon Prime. The makers were allowed to film behind the scenes at ‘Juve’ for more than forty weeks during the 2020-2021 football season. In the first episodes, this mainly results in cleverly made marketing television with a few smiling moments. For example, when young Texan Weston McKennie decides to brag about the taste of American food, much to the amusement of his Italian teammates.
Much more relevant to the dire plight of the Turin club now is what Fabio Paratici says in the documentary about the purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo. Paratici, now working at Tottenham but still sporting director at Juventus last season, asked the board “not to laugh” when he proposed to take over Ronaldo from Real Madrid.
Juventus paid more than 115 million euros for the Portuguese superstar in the summer of 2018, a record amount in the Italian Serie A, and certainly an exuberant sum for a footballer then already 33 years old.
With that purchase, Juventus cut deep into its own skin, according to sports sociologist and investigative journalist Pippo Russo. Russo has been making financial analyzes of the Italian football market for years for the magazine Domani and the website Calciomercato. “The club really couldn’t afford that purchase. Moreover, it has also not returned sporty. Ronaldo came to Turin to help the club win the Champions League, but Juve didn’t even come close.”
Former sporting director Fabio Paratici is now one of the top executives to be investigated by the Turin court. The other well-known names in the investigation, which has been christened Prisma, are Juventus president Andrea Agnelli and vice-president Pavel Nedved. The court suspects irregularities with the accounting and is therefore taking a closer look at the three financial years 2019, 2020 and 2021. The Turin court suspects Juventus of overestimating the transfer value of players and issuing invoices for non-existent transactions.
Recent searches of the club’s offices have sparked a stir in football-loving Italy, where news of the investigation has been widely picked up. That fuss also leads to a lot of speculation, for example about what the club bosses would have said to each other during tapped conversations. But its contents are not yet known.
Juventus, like the Serie A clubs AS Roma and Lazio, is a publicly traded company. The police waited until the trading day was over to search Juve’s offices, so as not to influence the club’s share. “Because Juventus is on the stock exchange, this research transcends the football world and weighs even more,” says Pippo Russo. The ball was also started by the stock watchdog Consob, who was the first to decide to take a closer look at Juventus’ financial transactions.
The investigation damages the image of Juventus, which is also not doing well with a seventh place in Serie A, but also reflects negatively on the whole of Italian football, Russo believes. “Italian club football is not doing well internationally, but our clubs are in a leading position in creative accounting,” it sounds loud. “Other football countries, such as Spain and Portugal, are already starting to copy the Italian system.”
Russo has been diving into financially creative constructions of football clubs for years, which, according to him, make their accounts more rosy in order to keep their licenses for Serie A and with the European football association UEFA. He speaks of a system of ‘crossed added value between clubs’, which means that two clubs agree among themselves to sell football players with approximately the same market value and approximately the same distance in the term of their contract. “Both clubs increase their assets, while no euro is paid.”
Clubs are quick to say in defense that the valuation of footballers is subjective, and that any suspicion should cease once a club is willing to pay a certain sum. But according to Russo, tens of millions of euros are shifted in such deals, while that does not yield a euro in the club’s coffers, with the sole aim of getting the financial house right on paper: “In Italian football that is a widespread system.”
Because Juventus is a listed top club, the researchers could go further, and could also end up at other clubs. “The calcio is close to bankruptcy financially, but above all morally,” says the sports sociologist. According to him, the Juventus case is the opportunity to clean up the Italian football market.
Possible sporting penalties are points deductions in the Italian league. Relegation to Serie B, the second division, seems much less likely this time, as happened to the club in 2006. After a major match-fixing scandal, the ‘Old Lady’ also lost two national titles. The forensic investigators must now be able to prove that Juventus executives deliberately inflated the market value of players, as fictitious steroids for their accounts. A legal form of accounting creativity, or a crime? It is up to the judiciary to answer that question.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 3, 2021