ALL HAIL THE 'MACHINE OF WAR': JOE TACOPINA'S ROMANTIC VISION FOR VENEZIA
Special to Bleacher Report
March 21, 2017
VENICE, Italy — Joe Tacopina has a square jaw, slicked-back hair and a muscular torso threatening to explode through his tightly fitted shirt. There's more than a hint of Steven Seagal about him.
The 50-year-old American has a reputation as a storyteller. The first time I walk into his office, he speaks for 26 minutes before interrupting himself with the realisation I have yet to ask a question. But then Tacopina has quite the story to tell.
It's a tale of a New York lawyer who wound up in one of Europe's most iconic cities, presiding over the romantic rebirth of a football club the locals thought gone forever. A yarn that plays out against a backdrop of canals and gondolas and world-famous cathedrals. And one which ends—if Tacopina gets his way—with Venezia establishing themselves as "one of the most important teams in Italy and in Europe."
This epic does not begin in Venice, but in Rome. For that is where Tacopina made his first foray into Italian football, in the city where his father was born.
"Football started out as just a passion play for me," he tells Bleacher Report. "People were like, 'What are you doing? You have a successful law practice.' But for me, I was so drawn in by the passion. I was doing some legal work in Italy, and I always tried to schedule my work over a weekend so I'd have to be here for a game.
"What I felt, for two hours, hearing 20,000 fans in unison, chanting or singing, and feeling the foundation of the stadium moving—it was just something I'd never experienced before. You could come up with the biggest sporting event in North America—the Super Bowl—and it doesn't compare."
Tacopina pictured in June 2015
Tacopina was taking his five children to watch Roma at the Stadio Olimpico when he discovered just how hard it was to buy them all replica shirts. "I needed a map to find the one place I could get any merchandise," he says. "Then, when I got there, they only had extra smalls. I was just like, 'You guys suck.' I mean, you just left so much money on the table. You have a captured audience."
It is hard to know, listening to Tacopina's account of what came next, where the truths end and the artistic licence kicks in. He is a fabulous storyteller, as you might expect of a brilliant courtroom lawyer—a defense attorney who had won so many high-profile cases by 2007 that GQ ran a piece on him (http://www.gq.com/story/joe-tacopina...fense-attorney
) under the headline "1-800-Save-My-Ass."
One suspects he is prone to embellishment—or at least to using language that allows his audience to magnify his importance in their own minds. We know, for instance, that he introduced Roma to Thomas DiBenedetto, the businessman who led a takeover of the club in 2011. We also know Tacopina went on to assume the title of vice president.
But ask about Tacopina's specific responsibilities during this time and it's hard to get a concise answer.
"When I came in there, I came in with a North American sports business model that we had perfected," he says. Discussing his eventual departure in 2014, he says he was "ready to relaunch my model elsewhere."
James Pallotta, who succeeded DiBenedetto as president of Roma in 2012, casts Tacopina's role in a different light. "Beyond having a board seat, Joe had nothing to do with the operations or strategic vision of Roma. Just absolutely nothing," he says.
"We wish him well, that he can take what he might have seen—if he saw the good and the bad at Roma—and can use that to help at Venezia. But as far as what's gone on at Roma, it's a lot of other people that have been putting Roma where it is, and Joe just did not have an operating role on it."
Tacopina left Roma in 2014 to join up with another group of North American investors, launching a takeover of Bologna. His role here, as club president, was more prominent, and in one season he helped to oversee the team's return from Serie B to the top flight.
Tacopina pictured in October 2014 in his role as president of Bologna
He was adored by supporters, who hoisted him on their shoulders after promotion was secured, as well as by players—who sang his name in the locker room. In return, Tacopina said the only way he would leave Bologna was in a coffin.
Instead, he was gone by October. Canadian businessman Joey Saputo—who also owns Major League Soccer's Montreal Impact—had been serving as club chairman during the same period, and after an apparent breakdown in their relationship, it was Tacopina who walked away. The details of exactly what went down are protected by a confidentiality agreement.
There is no suggestion here that Tacopina did anything wrong. To the contrary, both Bologna and Roma were in better shape by the time he left than when he arrived. The question in each case is whether he has taken credit for more than he should.
In the end, perhaps it does not matter. As long as the outcome at Venezia is similar, supporters are unlikely to care.
Filippo Inzaghi steps down into the water taxi, flashes a grin at the six people already on board and takes a seat next to mine. We've never met before, but he offers a warm "good evening" and pats me on the knee. His spare hand is working away furiously on the screen of a mobile phone.
"Bassano drew 2-2 with Forli," he announces to no one in particular. "And Ancona got an equaliser against Padova, right?"
The scene is every bit as surreal as it sounds. Filippo Inzaghi—the Filippo Inzaghi, he of 46 Champions League goals and two winners' medals; a man who has claimed Serie A titles with Milan and Juventus, not to mention a World Cup with Italy—is chugging through Venice on a small wooden boat, anxiously double-checking the day's results from the Italian third tier.
Venezia manager Inzaghi on the training ground
That, and applying mental arithmetic to work out what it all means for the league standings. "So we're two points clear right now?" he continues. "OK, but Pordenone are just kicking off…"
The "we" that he refers to are Venezia Football Club. Inzaghi took over as manager back in June, a move that left his own supporters bewildered. His last job was leading that same Milan team with whom he had won all there was to win as a player. Despite failing to emulate such success as a tactician, few had expected him to drop down one division—let alone two—for his next coaching appointment.
Strange things, though, are happening in Venice.
The residents here were beginning to wonder whether they might wind up with no football team at all back in the summer of 2015, after Venezia went bankrupt for the third time in a decade. But then an American showed up with a big smile and even bigger ambitions. And everything started to change in a hurry.
Venezia's crest painted on a wall in Venice
As Inzaghi frets away about scorelines and standings, that American snores gently in a corner. Tacopina gets his sleep wherever he can these days, taking advantage of any gaps that present themselves in between his dual lives as Venezia Football Club president and a New York City lawyer.
But when those eyes do open again, you can be sure that his mouth will soon follow.
Aware that his time with Bologna was coming to a close in the middle of 2015, Tacopina started casting around for fresh opportunities. When he heard about the situation in Venice, he could not believe his own good fortune.
"The Russian fella had left the gondola without a gondolier," he says. "The club was just floating around, heading for bankruptcy. When I started looking at it, I was like, 'Wait, you have the most beautiful city in the world, and clearly the most unique city in the world. One that has between 25 and 30 million tourists every year.'
"I thought about it for one full day, and I started thinking about the potential. I was like, 'My God, what am I doing? How is no one else in the world, thinking, 'Hey, Italy, which has calcio (football), and Venice, the most visible city in Italy?' Why? Why? And what I could take it for?
Venezia's stadium can be seen to the right of the canal
"I had a chance to buy it out. But instead of buying a team from bankruptcy in Lega Pro, the third division, paying €6 million in debts that [the former owner] owed, and starting our season minus six points because of penalties for payroll taxes not being paid, I said, 'I'm just going to let it fold, and I'll relaunch with a new name.'"
Tacopina drew together an ownership group made up of friends and business associates. He is not at liberty to name the individuals involved but does state that everyone is American. He says he is the majority shareholder "by a substantial amount."
The vision he sold them is the same one he has been selling to me and anyone else who will listen: that Venezia could become a global brand. Yes, the club lacks a glorious history, but imagine if the club becomes a tourist attraction as integral to this city as the Doge's Palace or the Bridge of Sighs.
For that reason, rebranding was a top priority. The version of this club that existed between its two most recent bankruptcies had officially been known as Foot Ball Club Unione Venezia S.r.l.
The new Venezia crest on display in the club's media area
"You've buried the most important part of that title!" says Tacopina, known affectionately by his staff as
"The Machine of War" for his drive and tenacity. "That's the worst thing you can do. You have FBC and Unione, and then there's 'Venezia' lost in the middle. Venezia is the global brand. There's a reason there were 350 people at the initial press conference after I took over the club. Not because of me…because it's Venice."
The decision to relaunch the team as Venezia Football Club was met locally with minor protests. Veteran supporters of AC Mestre lamented that they were being written out of the picture. Tacopina counters by pointing out that the orange their team once wore features prominently in the new club badge and strip, together with Venezia's classic green and black.
Where the old club crest (http://www.veneziaunited.com/fbclive..._ufficiale.png
) featured a winged lion holding up a bible—an image which abounds in Venice, symbolising St. Mark the Evangelist—the new one (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikiped...nce_2015).png)
shows a more aggressive rendition of the same beast standing on an open book and bearing his teeth.
"The old lion says, 'Welcome to our visitors, to our city; be safe,'" Tacopina says. "This lion says, 'Get the f--k out or we'll kill you.'"
Tacopina's contention is that tourist preferences are changing. "They don't have to be the biggest football fans in the world, but people coming here want something from Venice," he says. "Why buy another stupid, cheesy tourist T-shirt that says 'I love Venice' as opposed to something that's very fashion-forward, is a Nike product and has the city's name on it?" He's talking about the Venezia team shirts, of course.
That same outlook informs another of his more intriguing ideas. Venezia have recently launched a new membership card, the Insider Pass (http://www.veneziafcpass.com/product...international/
), which comes bundled with a few goodies, including a scarf autographed by Inzaghi and a letter from Tacopina himself. Card-holders are promised "access to game tickets, training sessions and other events and experiences." But the more tangible benefit, in the immediate term, is a bundle of discounts for unrelated products and services—everything from shops to hotels and museums—in the city of Venice.
"I literally took one of my commercial guys, and we went knocking on doors," says Tacopina. "We started in St. Marco's Square in the first jewellery store on the left. 'Hi, we're Venezia Football Club. We're going to be offering a discount club to all our consumers, and we're reaching the North American, Asian tourist market. I'll direct them to your store, but you have to give my cardholders a discount, between 10 and 20 percent.' You'd be surprised how many people jumped on it."
The passes cost €87 for Venice residents or €110 for people who don't have a local address. That is a significant reduction on the €110/€230 price-point that was set when they initially went on sale.
Does that reduction reflect a recognition that Tacopina was overambitious in his initial expectations? Perhaps, and it certainly adjusts the potential revenue sums. When he first told me about the passes, back when they were still at the higher price point, he asserted that: “If I had one per cent of the tourist market annually—just 1 per cent—then that's over €20 million a year.”
Venezia tickets for sale from a tourist booth in Venice
Time will tell if either of those numbers of represents a realistic target, but what we can say is that few tourists visiting Venice from Asia or America will expect to get away with doing things on the cheap.
If the range of discounts is wide enough, then even non-football fans could consider the Insider Pass to be a worthwhile investment.
And if nothing else, city does appear to have received this idea with enthusiasm. As well as being sold on the club's official website, they can now be acquired directly from hotels and tourism agencies in Venice. Tacopina says cruise operators have also been in touch about the possibility of placing bulk orders for passes that they could sell on board.'
His innovation in seeking out fresh revenue streams is commendable. But the key pillar of Tacopina's long-term vision for Venezia sounds rather familiar. Just like Jurij Korablin, the departed "Russian fella" Tacopina mentions earlier, he intends to build a brand new stadium right next to Marco Polo Airport.
There is no sporting arena in the world quite like the Stadio Pierluigi Penzo. Venezia's home ground is old, cold and decrepit—a crumbling edifice of cracked concrete and rusted metal with a flimsy hospitality cabin tacked on top of its one covered stand. The curve (standing area) behind each goal is nothing more than standalone metal bleachers that bend and sway under the weight of the crowd.
And yet, it is also unspeakably beautiful, perfectly positioned on the northern tip of Sant'Elena—the eastern-most island in the main cluster that makes up Venice's historic centre. On a clear day, the view from the top of the stands over the Venetian Lagoon is breathtaking. Jump in with the fans riding out to the game on a vaporetto (water bus) from Santa Lucia station, and you can take in a few of the city's iconic landmarks on your way there, too.
On an emotional level, the thought of abandoning such a venue feels unspeakably sad. On a practical one, there might not be any other choice. There is no space to redevelop here, with the Venetian Lagoon surrounding the venue on three sides and a military facility on the fourth. The only obvious way to increase the existing capacity—a modest 7,500—would be to raise those exposed metal bleachers even higher, as the club's president Maurizio Zamparini did during the club's last stint in the top flight.
Even so, can supporters really be content to see their team relocate? To my surprise, those I speak to offer few objections. Many have already moved to Mestre themselves, an embodiment of the long-term population shift away from the old city centre. And besides, the Penzo is uncomfortable and hard to reach. As long as it is maintained for some purpose—as a training facility, perhaps—the locals can abide the thought of a move.
And what of Tacopina's suggestion that up to 40 percent of game tickets in the new stadium could be sold to tourists? I had imagined there might be some resistance to the idea of a soulless ground packed with foreign visitors, but instead I find more pragmatism. If tourist money helps contribute to a more successful team, then why not?
Former Venezia striker Paolo Poggi, who now works as a club ambassador, helps me to understand the mindset. A kid who grew up a stone's throw away from the Penzo, he comes from a family that—like so many others in this city—make their living from the tourist industry. His brother runs a bed-and-breakfast, just as his parents used to.
"Venezia has always had a bit of an open culture," he says. "We are used to hosting people. We want people to come here. We want them to come here, to our home, with a sense of curiosity to understand what we are about."
Stadio Pierluigi Penzo
In a sense, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Even the most optimistic estimates suggest the proposed new stadium—with a capacity of between 22,000 and 25,000, as well as further commercial and events facilities built onto the same site—will take years to achieve.
Tacopina insists it can be done by 2019, citing the enthusiasm of the new city mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, but others are more circumspect. Building stadiums is a complicated business, and despite new legislation designed to facilitate that process, Italian bureaucracy remains notoriously slow.
The more immediate priority, in any case, has been to construct a competitive team. Even Tacopina would readily acknowledge that few tourists are going to get excited about the idea of coming to watch a team playing in the Italian third tier.
There is no great tradition of footballing success in Venice. The city's team has been relaunched and rebranded numerous times over the course of its 110-year history, but not since the Second World War has it threatened to usurp the Italian elite.
Inspired by the brilliant midfield pairing of Ezio Loik and Valentino Mazzola, Venezia won the Coppa Italia in 1941 and came third in Serie A a year later. They have never won another major piece of silverware, nor finished again in the top half of the top flight. For most of the intervening five-and-a-half decades, they have competed in the third and fourth divisions.
Such modest results reflect demographic realities. The population of the 117 small islands that make up the historic centre of Venice has been in steady decline since the 1930s, and by 2009 it had fallen to around 60,000 people (https://www.theguardian.com/world/20...exodus-tourism
Venezia did expand their reach in 1987 by merging with AC Mestre, a team from the mainland. Although technically a borough of Venice, Mestre is separated from those islands by a two-and-a-half mile long bridge, La Ponte della Liberta.
Stadio Pierluigi Penzo
In a nation where notions of campanilismo—the word translates literally to "bell-tower-ism" but is used to convey the fierce sense of pride and identity many Italians feel towards their local communities—still hold sway, such a move was always going to be met with hostility. As John Foot notes in his book Calcio, many fans boycotted the new team, while others came to blows in the terraces.
Success, though, has a way of softening old grievances. Calcio Venezia-Mestre, as they would be known for the next 18 years, rose all the way to Serie A in 1998, prompting thousands of fans to flood St. Mark's Square in celebration. Tacopina keeps a framed photo of that scene in his office "as a reminder of what's to come."
As joyful as that moment was, it became the prologue to one of the most extraordinary and unhappy chapters in Venezia's history. Relegated in 2000, they initially bounced straight back up, only to finish bottom of Serie A in 2001-02. During the summer that followed, Zamparini struck a deal to buy another team—Palermo.
Venezia's players had already gathered together for preseason training when a coach pulled up outside their hotel. It collected 12 members of the first-team squad, along with newly appointed manager Ezio Glerean, and whisked them off to Palermo's training camp instead. Zamparini not only jumped ship, but he took the best part of his crew with him (http://sport.sky.it/calciomercato/20...glio_2002.html
The players left behind demonstrated remarkable resilience, staving off relegation from Serie B for two years, but Venezia struggled to find new investors and went bankrupt in 2005. They were soon reborn under a new name but survived just four years before going bust again. This time, they had to start over from the fifth tier.
Plaques chart the history of football in Venice
Their fortunes finally seemed to be looking up in 2011 with the arrival of a Russian consortium to take over the club. Outgoing president Enrico Rigoni vowed that the new owners—led by businessman Korablin—had both the funds and the ambition to take Venezia back to Serie A, as well as building a new stadium that would put them on a sound financial footing for the future (http://www.sportmediaset.mediaset.it...-venezia.shtml
Initial results were promising. Venezia secured back-to-back promotions, and in 2014, Korablin purchased a plot of land on the mainland, close to Marco Polo Airport, with the intention of making this the site for their new home ground (http://corrieredelveneto.corriere.it...23631350.shtml
). But the project was fatally undermined when the then-mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, was arrested together with a number of other public officials as part of a corruption investigation (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worl...n-charges.html
Orsoni's subsequent resignation (https://www.theguardian.com/world/20...uption-scandal
), combined with the broader disruption to local government, effectively put the stadium project on ice. By the summer of 2015, Korablin had lost patience and put Venezia up for sale. No new buyer materialised in time to pay the Lega Pro subscription fees, so the club went to the wall for the third time in 10 years.
That was where Tacopina came in.
Where do you begin when building a football team from scratch? The Venezia side that sprung back into existence in the summer of 2015 owned none of its former players or coaching staff. It did not even have Tacopina as its public face at first, since he had not yet formally extricated himself from Bologna.
What it did have was one overqualified sporting director. Giorgio Perinetti had worked in the past at Napoli (during the Diego Maradona era, no less), Roma and Juventus. More recently, he was the man who spotted Andrea Belotti—whose explosive form and first Italy call-up was one of calcio's biggest stories of 2016—signing him up for Palermo from third-division AlbinoLeffe.
The new Venezia crest outside of their stadium
In years gone by, Perinetti might have never entertained the thought of getting involved in a project like this one. But he found himself at a particular life juncture in early 2015, contemplating a return to work after a year spent caring, and then grieving, for his wife, who passed away after a long illness.
"A mutual friend of myself and Tacopina sought me out and asked if I would consider Venezia," Perinetti tells Bleacher Report. "At that stage, I just wanted to get to know the person and the project. When we first started talking, we were discussing a team that we expected to start life in Lega Pro (the third tier).
"Tacopina is a very clear, very direct person. He's a person who transmits a lot of enthusiasm, and that really took me. Then we learned that it would not be a case of starting from Lega Pro, after all, but right from Serie D (the fourth tier), amateur football. I've never done that before.
"That became an exciting thing for me in itself. I had already won every possible league—both at a youth level and a professional level. But I'd never won anything in the amateurs."
A football obsessive, Perinetti had continued to watch games throughout his time away but could not pretend to have any detailed scouting knowledge of players at this level. Instead, he relied on the relationships built up over the course of a career—getting in touch with every contact he had who might be able to offer advice. He also hired a manager, Paolo Favaretto, with experience of competing at this level.
"Through friendships, casting the net wide and meeting people, we managed to sign 21 players in one week," he remembers with a grin. "A record! We didn't have a single player, and then, within seven days, we had 21."
Perinetti did not recognise all of the players he was signing, but they knew all about him. Francesco Cernuto was the lone member of Venezia's pre-bankruptcy squad who came back to join this new iteration. To do so required dropping down a division and putting his faith in what was—with Tacopina not yet able to reveal himself—essentially a faceless regime.
"I, like a great number of the lads who agreed to play for this team last year, did so only and exclusively because Perinetti was here," Cernuto says. "He is one of the most important directors in Italian football. If he, Perinetti, trusts this new president, then how are us kids not going to do the same?"
Venezia finished top of their regional pool—winning promotion to Lega Pro. A host of further signings arrived in the summer of 2016, including former Udinese and Napoli defender Maurizio Domizzi as well as ex-Watford, Granada and Levante forward Alexandre Geijo.
The most stunning new hire, though, was the manager.
On my last full day in Venice, I stop by to watch a training session at the team's facility on the outskirts of Mestre. A lone Chinese tourist stands outside the gates. The weather is frosty, but he waits in the hopes of meeting Inzaghi. In some tiny way, his presence feels like a validation of Tacopina's belief that Venezia Football Club could—with the right people on board—eventually become a global brand.
Inzaghi himself could not care less about such things. He is polite to a fault and will take the time to chat and pose for a photograph with this visitor before the morning is through. But his own interest lies exclusively with what happens on the football pitch.
After losing his job at Milan in the summer of 2015, he decided to take a sabbatical—not to give himself a break from the sport, but to visit with different clubs and coaches, trying to develop his own knowledge so that he would be better equipped to succeed the next time around.
"Then I wanted to start afresh," he says. "The division didn't interest me. What interested me was finding a project that would give me the joy of coaching. I had different requests, some from China and some from higher divisions in Italy as well. But I didn't look at the economic aspect. I wanted to go where there was something important to do."
That he believes he has found such a place is evident in his actions. Our water taxi ride together had come at the end of a 1-0 home win over Gubbio, a match Inzaghi spent entirely on his feet, prowling, gesturing and bawling out instructions from his technical area at the Penzo.
"For me, managing Venezia is the same as when I was managing Milan. Nothing changes. When I do something—anything—that becomes my Champions League. It's my everything. Taking Venezia back into the divisions that it deserves to play in, that's something which matters a lot for me."
So far, he is on course. Lega Pro is a notoriously difficult division to escape from, with 60 teams split across three pools competing for just four spots in Serie B. Venezia currently sit first in their group—a position that would guarantee them promotion (http://us.soccerway.com/national/ita...rone-b/r37483/
). Slip even to second, however, and they would be dragged into a 27-team playoff from which only one can emerge.
Venezia manager Inzaghi
For Tacopina, it is a necessary evil. There is no way of buying direct access to the higher divisions, although he is open in admitting that the club is being run at a loss for the present—outspending the competition on wages in order to climb the ladder faster.
That will end, he insists, once they reach Serie B. "We'll pretty much be self-sustaining once we get there. There are real media revenues at that point—about €7 million, as opposed to €700,000."
Inzaghi was intrigued by the American's vision for what happens next: a team that Tacopina hopes will rely first and foremost on homegrown talent. Through high-profile try-outs led by former stars (another benefit of Perinetti's contacts book) as well as old-fashioned scouting, Venezia have revived their academy in a hurry. In December, their under-15s won a match against the equivalent age group from Juventus.
Most of all, though, Inzaghi seems to have been captivated by Tacopina himself. "The first time I spoke to the president, he transmitted to me a truly incredible enthusiasm, a desire to do well," he says. "I wanted to wed myself to a project, and he gave me confidence right away."
The president's relentless positivity is undeniably contagious. In the street, fans stop to shake his hand, or simply acknowledge him as they pass with a cry of "Grande Joe!" It is an acknowledgement not only of the club's improved form but the fact he has always "messo la faccia"—shown his face here in Venice, attending not only home games but countless society events and charitable functions.
Can he deliver on the promises he is making? For now, that feels like an unanswerable question. We do not even know who else is with him on the club board, much less what combined expertise and financial might they can offer.
At times, Tacopina does get ahead of himself. Perinetti recalls a conversation the pair had at the outset, when they were preparing for their first season in Serie D. "Joe kept saying, 'In three years, we'll be playing in Serie A,'" says the director. "I had to say, 'No, even if everything goes perfectly, we're still going to need four!'"
What better setting could there be than Venice, though, to dream an unlikely dream? You could forgive a man who dozed off on a water taxi, listening to Filippo Inzaghi fret about Santarcangelo's match against Sambenedettese, for believing that nothing is impossible anymore.