Lazio may be the next to fall

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Despite Italian clubs performing well in Europe, their financial difficulties continue. Paddy Agnew looks at the latest victims

As news conferences go, it was distinctly low-key. Defender Massimo Oddo of Serie A side Lazio was holding court to a small gathering of underwhelmed hacks, gathered at the club's headquarters outside Rome last Wednesday lunch-time, just half an hour prior to departure for a UEFA Cup tie in Belgrade.

Oddo, with all due respect, is not exactly a household name. Had the hacks been able to choose their ideal man to interview, it might have been Argentine Claudio Lopez, Italian international Stefano Fiore or Yugoslav Dejan Stankovic, but it certainly would not have been Oddo.

Nonetheless, Oddo did say something that prompted a flurry of red lights on the TV cameras and a scrambling for notebooks and pens.

Asked about the impact of the financial crisis which has hit Lazio, following the announcement last week that parent company Cirio was "in default" on a €150 million bond payment, Oddo replied: "The boss (owner Sergio Cragnotti) spoke to us at the weekend and told us not to worry, that he would be able to sort everything out without problems for Lazio."

Eight hours later, Oddo and team-mates were at the coffee stage of their evening meal in Belgrade's Hyatt Hotel when the news came through from back home. It came via a one-line ANSA news agency flash - "Lazio For Sale".

Massimo Oddo is not the first nor will he be the last footballer to find himself and his livelihood caught up in complex business dealings.

At worst, however, he and his team-mates will be looking for a new employer before the end of the season.

For SS Lazio itself, and for its tempestuous but loyal Roman fans, though, the future could be much bleaker since there must be a real possibility that Lazio could go the way of another Italian "powerhouse club", namely Fiorentina, this autumn, and end up banished to the fourth division because of financial insolvency.

To avoid such a dramatic decline and fall, a new owner must be found, and found before the end of the season, at the latest.

Lazio fans will doubtless hope that the new man has a more steady business style than Sergio Cragnotti whose 10-year tenure at Lazio was marked firstly by his brief imprisonment in 1993 (re a "Bribesville" corruption enquiry) and then by the rise and rise of his Cirio empire.

The Cragnotti years also saw some spectacular player wheeling and dealing that included Paul "Gazza" Gascoigne, Croat Alen Boksic, Argentines Juan Veron and Hernan Crespo and Italian Christian Vieri, to name but the most expensive. Their combined total cost was an estimated €122 million, whilst their subsequent sales generated an estimated €140 million.

At first glance, Lazio has a lot going for it. Firstly, the club comes from the most lucrative catchment area in Italy, sharing the country's capital city with only one other Serie A club, AS Roma.

Secondly, a loyal fan following has seen average seasonal ticket sales of 30,000-plus in recent seasons.

Thirdly, and not unimportantly, Lazio have a recent winning track-record, having lifted the Italian league title in 2000, the last ever European Cup Winners' Cup in 1999 and two Italian Cups in 1998 and 2000.

That last successful period, of course, came under the coaching of current England manager, Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Furthermore, under the canny guideance of Roberto Mancini, Lazio have shown unexpectedly good form this season in both Serie A and the UEFA Cup.

The club is currently joint fourth in Serie A and on Thursday night eliminated Red Star Belgrade to qualify for the third round of the UEFA Cup, financial crisis notwithstanding.

There are some heavy negative factors, however. For a start, Lazio returned an annual trading loss of €103 million last June.

For a second, the club is currently being sued in a Rome court by both Manchester United and Spanish club Valencia for €18 million and €12 million respectively regarding the transfers of Dutch defender Jaap Stam and Spanish international Gaizka Mendieta.

On top of that, there is the difficult business of evaluating the club's true worth.

Outgoing owner Cragnotti puts it at €150 million, soccer analysts believe it's half that.

Then, too, as Italy's first stock-market quoted club (Cragnotti retained a 50.9 per cent majority shareholding), Lazio is different.

The consortium of advisers (i.e. banks) who will now oversee the restructuring of parent company Cirio are likely to force Cragnotti to sell off the family jewellry, and fast.

In other words, given that the Serie A transfer market opens in January for a month-long "window", it could be that by the time any prospective new owner gets his hands on Lazio, many of its most prized items (players such as Lopez, Fiore, Stam, Stankovic, etc) will have been sold.

As of now, there is no prospective new owner. Media speculation has gone on a wild goose chase this week coming up with a series of unlikely and unconfirmed candidates such as multi-nationals TimeWarner and Sony or the pharmaceuticals tycoon Ernesto Bertarelli, the backer of the yacht "Alinghi" currently competing in the Vuitton Cup.

If a new owner is not found, the crisis in Italian football, already indicated by the demise of Fiorentina, will become official.

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