Roma’s president issues ultimatum for long-delayed new stadium

AS Roma president James Pallotta. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

ROME — The American president of the Roma soccer club is running out of patience.

If regional authorities don’t approve construction of a long-delayed new stadium for the team, Boston executive James Pallotta says he is prepared to sell the club.

"We have to be breaking ground in February or March. The approval has to be any day now," Pallotta told The Associated Press this week.

"We don’t want to sell it. We think there’s a huge opportunity for us to build a championship-calibre team with a stadium and an entertainment complex," Pallotta added in a telephone interview from Boston, where the team was training. "But if they can’t get the approval stuff in order then someone else is going to have to go through with it."

Pallotta first presented the stadium plan in March 2014 alongside then-mayor Ignazio Marino, saying that it would be ready for the 2016-17 season — which ended two months ago.

But the massive project — due to include a training centre, entertainment complex, three office towers and extensive transportation works — has been delayed by environmental concerns and criticism over public funding.

The project’s cost was originally valued at 1.6 billion euros (nearly $2 billion), including more than 200 million euros in public financing.

Earlier this year, the office towers were cut from the project to gain approval from current mayor Virginia Raggi.

Approval from the Lazio region is the next step.

The proposed stadium site in Tor di Valle is about halfway between downtown and Leonardo Da Vinci Airport.

With a design inspired by the Colosseum, the stadium is slated to seat 52,500 and be expandable to 60,000 for major matches.

Roma currently shares the 72,000-seat Stadio Olimpico with city rival Lazio.

In a lengthy interview, Pallotta also discussed several other issues:

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AC MILAN’S SPENDING

Pallotta is finding it difficult to fathom how rival AC Milan has spent more than 200 million euros (nearly $250 million) — the most in Europe — this transfer campaign.

UEFA put a "Financial Fair Play" investigation into Milan’s books on hold until October.

"I’m so upset at UEFA. It’s a joke," Pallotta said. "It’s crazy. It makes no sense. They don’t have the money."

U.S. private equity fund Elliott provided backing to the Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April.

"(Elliott CEO Paul Singer) is a friend of mine," Pallotta said. "They’re going to own the team. They have the debt."

Milan CEO Marco Fassone said he was "stunned" by Pallotta’s comments, and offered to compare finances with the Boston executive on his next visit to Italy.

"We put out a 50 million euro ($60 million) bond that is completely dedicated to this summer’s campaign and we have plenty of room left to use on the bond," Fassone said in a video posted on Milan’s website.

"Furthermore, we have multi-year plans which we have presented to the board of directors involving elements of total transparency," Fassone added.

Fassone clarified that the Elliott fund provided 180 million euros ($210 million) of the 740 million euros ($850 million) of the club’s value.

"I apologize if I have some incorrect information," Pallotta then said in a statement on Roma’s website. "I care a lot about Italian football returning to the top and in that respect, I expect that all the clubs can contribute to a stronger and more sustainable league, like we are doing at AS Roma.

"I wish AC Milan and its new owners all the best and look forward to their management and new owners working with all of us to be a key part of Serie A’s growth," Pallotta added.

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5-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

Next month will mark five years since Pallotta became Roma’s president.

A hedge-fund manager with the Raptor Group, Pallotta had no previous experience in football.

"I wish I knew the sport back then as well as I do now," he said. "And I wish I knew a lot of the characters and the players — both good and bad — in the game. There’s just a lot of things to learn and navigate."

After a sixth-place finish in his first season in charge, Roma has become a perennial challenger for the Serie A title, placing no worse than third each of the past four seasons.

"The first couple of years I ended up spending so much time with the financial side of it and cleaning it up and dealing with the banks," Pallotta said. "I inherited a bunch of things that have taken some time to clean up and I feel like we’re now in the right spot for a lot of things."

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BUY LOW, SELL HIGH

Pallotta gushes with enthusiasm over the club’s new sports director, Monchi.

After enabling Spanish club Sevilla to punch above its weight and win 11 trophies during his tenure there, Monchi joined Roma in April.

Pallotta singled out the manner in which Monchi selects players who fit the squad’s style of play — recruiting defenders who can pass well and feed speedy wingers to set up centre forward Edin Dzeko, who led the Italian league with 29 goals last season.

"It’s just a completely different animal from what I’ve seen before," Pallotta said.

"When he was at Seville he knew that for 15 years he had to make up revenue or losses because they didn’t have enough revenue," Pallotta added. "So he became really, really good at identifying players — young players — that he didn’t have to pay a lot of money for and created a lot of value with."

Pallotta said it reminded him of how when he traded stocks as a hedge-fund manager, "I tried to buy low and sell high."

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TRANSFER BARGAINS

Pallotta called the purchase of defender Aleksandar Kolarov from Manchester City for 5 million euros ($6 million) "a steal."

While Roma has been criticized for allowing starters like Antonio Rudiger and Mohamed Salah to depart to the English Premier League — to Chelsea and Liverpool, respectively — the club is slated to take in up to 80 million euros in transfer fees for the duo.

Other acquisitions have included veteran Mexico centre back Hector Moreno from PSV Eindhoven for 5.7 million euros, 22-year-old right back Rick Karsdorp from Feyenoord for 14 million euros and defensive midfielder Maxime Gonalons from Lyon for 5 million euros.

"I think (Gonalons) will be the big surprise for what we paid for him," Pallotta said. "I think we have as strong a midfield as we’ve had."

While many Roma fans don’t seem too enthusiastic over a transfer campaign centred on several players many of them have never heard of, that’s all part of Monchi’s plan.

"That’s what he does really well. He has a huge network and the guy works relentlessly," Pallotta said. "I don’t know if he sleeps, which I like because I don’t sleep."