Watford’s Big Picture Problems
The take-over of an English football club by the owner of an Italian club passed somewhat quietly on account of the European Championships but, as Paul Grech, writes Watfords tie-in with Udinese owner Giampaolo Pozzo might just end up having a significance that reaches some way beyond Vicarage Road.
As the two nations’ teams faced each other in one of the lesser balanced games of Euro 2012’s quarter final line up, another piece of business involving English and Italian football went by practically unnoticed. By buying a majority stake in Watford, Italian Giampaolo Pozzo became the latest foreign owner of an English club and, in that respect, this piece of news merited the lack of attention that it received. What makes it remarkable is that Pozzo is also the owner of Serie A side Udinese.
Pozzo’s achievements in Udine have been nothing short of remarkable. A team that was constantly yo-yoing between Serie A and B was transformed into one of the more stable sides at the top of Italian football; one capable of two consecutive Champions League qualification slots despite spending a fraction of what is available to the country’s traditional giants. This has been achieved through one of the finest scouting networks allied with a scatter-gun approach of signing promising players irrespective of their nationality (but as long as they don’t cost too much). It is a strategy that has paid huge rewards not only in the form of positive league results but also through a bank balance that has been significantly inflated through the sales of the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Christian Zapata, Mauricio Isla and Kwadwo Asamoah. And that’s taking only the past two seasons.
Even better, these results have been achieved by employing coaches who preach attractive, attacking football. Not because of some ideological belief but rather because this style of football is more likely to bring to the fore attacking talent which, in turn, normally attracts the highest transfer fees. This success at Udinese has seen Pozzo exporting his model. Three years ago, financially crippled Spanish side Granada – then in the equivalent of the third division – entered into an agreement with Udinese through which they were loaned a number of players contracted to the Italian side. At the end of that season they were promoted and two seasons later repeated the feat to return to the Spanish top flight for the first time in 35 years, a position they managed to retain thanks once again to the players received from Udinese.
All of this might sound alluring for Watford fans, especially given their recent money problems. And it is, just as long as they accept a few basic facts. Like, for instance, not getting attached to players because those who do well are likely to be moved on. Or to avoid the illusion that the club is looking for any success other than that which sees the key players get playing time and experience. This is not to say that the deal will be bad for Watford, whose fans will probably point out that their best players were already getting sold and their ambitions were already minimal given their problems. Yet there should be no illusion about the fact that fans’ expectations might be different from the owners’. In the short term, it probably won’t matter that much. In the longer term, any lack of ambition might be viewed differently.
Even so, it is difficult to really read this move by Pozzo. Links with a Spanish club are understandable, given the linguistic and cultural similarities that there are with Italy. A player who does well there is likely to do so in Italy as well. England is a whole different matter. Then there’s also the markets that Udinese’s scouts are most proficient in: South American, Africa and Eastern Europe. All huge producers of talent but, crucially, all destinations from which players are likely to need work permits. Unless these players come equipped with EU passports, it is unlikely they’ll be playing at Vicarage Road for long. Which either means that there will be a change of strategy where the focus will shift to players from other nations or else that there is another reason behind this move. And that other reason is likely to be money. Pozzo’s experience has taught him that it is possible to build a team cheaply and progress. If he’s done it in Italy and he’s done it in Spain then for him there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be able to do it in England as well. With the added incentive of the huge TV money that is available if he makes it to the Premier League.
If he can achieve this with a slight increase to Udinese’s budget, then it would probably be more lucrative than trying to get to the Champions League with his home club. All this has serious implications for English football at large. Traditionally there has been huge resistance against the suggestion of clubs in the top leagues registering a reserve side in the professional league structure. Yet, effectively, this is what Watford have become with the only difference being that the parent club is from another country. Does this deal – and its acceptance – leave any moral reason why big clubs can’t take over smaller one and set up a similar model?