Football: Julius and the Vicenza crown

Glenn Moore explains the disapproval of the Italians towards an Englishman abroad
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The Independent Online
CHELSEA supporters arrived at Vicenza's homely Stadio Romeo Menti for Thursday night's European Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final first leg to be greeted by the headline in a supporters' newspaper of "English Go Home". Unnecessarily provocative, they might have thought, but it was not aimed at them.

The target, Stephen Julius, is a resident of Kensington and Chelsea, but he is not a football fan, and that is one of the problems. Julius is managing director of Stellican, a venture capital operation based in the City of London, which bought Vicenza last June for pounds 8.2m.

Julius, 38 and a graduate of Harvard Business School, had never been inside a football ground before buying Vicenza. This sounds extraordinary but it is an indication of the way football is being perceived by the financial industry. A number of football club chairmen and directors have already made fortunes out of share flotations at English clubs and Italy is seen as the next El Dorado.

The country is more passionate about the game than England but their clubs have barely begun to exploit the financial possibilities. Thanks to the influence of Silvio Berlusconi, the president of Milan and head of a media empire, there is widespread awareness of the lucrative potential of television coverage but the possibilities inherent in merchandising and a stock exchange listing, are only now being realised.

Thus the investment in Vicenza alongside ENIC, the investment trust controlled by the Bahamas-based billionaire Joe Lewis which also has interests in Rangers, Slavia Prague and AEK Athens. The locals were suspicious. Julius had to work hard to persuade the mayor to rent the ground to a foreigner and even the local bishop bent his ear over transfer policy.

The bishop's concern has proved prescient with transfer policy becoming a main source of discontent. Local supporters say a promising team has been broken up by selling off good young players and not replacing them. Promoted in 1996, Vicenza briefly led Serie A in their first season and won the Copa Italia, their first honour, in the second. But while they may be taking a 1-0 lead to Stamford Bridge for the second leg things are going less well in Serie A. Following three wins in 13 games they are just four points clear of the relegation zone andFrancesco Guidolin, their manager for four years, is expected to move to either Udinese, another small but more ambitious club, or Napoli.

Chelsea fans are no strangers to city financiers from Matthew Harding to the property developer David Bulstrode. Under Ken Bates the club seek to maximise every possible source of revenue and Chelsea are among the most expensive sides to watch in Europe. However, they have invested heavily in the team and, after winning three trophies in 92 years, have been rewarded with two in 10 months.

Julius is inevitably becoming a fan, although the second legwill be the first game he has ever attended in England. He said yesterday that his "primary objective" was for Vicenza to maintain mid-table Serie A status and survive by judicious economics and selling players to bigger clubs. This is rare in Italy where local grandees plough personal fortunes into clubs in return for the reflected glory. Julius, who bought the club out of receivership after the president was arrested on charges of fraudulent bankruptcy, said he wanted to avoid commitments that would cripple Vicenza.

The town has a population of only 110,000 and he added: "We can't compete with the Lazios and Internazionales. You have to invest huge amounts in players and the salaries kill you. Success is one of the biggest problems for any football club. Salaries go up with no guarantee of income rising to match. The big clubs lose tons of money; we are in it to make money."

This makes sense in the City but on the terraces it is anathema. Vicenza's supporters created a memorable atmosphere on Thursday with beautifully choreographed set-pieces and non-stop rhythmic chanting. They deserve to be more than numbers on a balance sheet.