The revolution began with a good lunch. In the west stand of Udinese’s Stadio Friuli on Sunday, two new restaurants were opened to the public, each offering the same €15 set menu. An antipasto of prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella would be followed a main course of tortellini, then a piece of gubana (traditional Friulian cake) for dessert. A bottle of water was included in the price.
This was a new concept for fans more accustomed to grabbing a pre-game coffee and a sandwich at one of the stadium’s ubiquitous bars, but both restaurants did a brisk trade in the hours leading up to kick-off. As intrigued as they were by this new lunch option, most fans were even more excited by the prospect of what could come next. The opening of these two new outlets represented the first, tiny, step in the club’s plan to rebuild the Stadio Friuli into a modern, fan-friendly stadium.
Nine days previous on Friday 29 March, Udinese had finally positioned themselves to begin such a project, securing a 99-year leasehold of the communally-owned Friuli as well as the surrounding land. It should go down as one of the most significant days in the club’s history. In return for just €45,000 per year, plus a commitment to spending at least €21.5m on structural upgrades, Udinese had effectively established ownership of their stadium for the next century.
That was some coup. Eighteen months have passed since Juventus became the first team in Serie A to own their home ground, a move which was supposed to spur the rest of the country to action. Since then, however, only one other team had made any real progress towards stadium ownership. Cagliari’s example is not exactly one that others should seek to follow.
The Stadio Is Arenas, a temporary pre-fab structure built with council permission on communally-owned land, was supposed to represent a happy compromise for a club of modest means. Instead it has been an unmitigated disaster. Less than one year after the stadium’s opening, Cagliari are already looking to relocate again after repeatedly failing to obtain permission from the local authorities to open their ground up to supporters.
Udinese ought not to encounter such difficulties. The club does still have one or two bureaucratic hurdles to clear – their planned renovations must still be approved by the Italian Football Federation as well as a long list of local authorities including the fire brigade, police and construction commission. But they also have the stated support of both their city’s mayor and influential figures within the sport’s governing body.
Their project is far more ambitious than the one attempted by Cagliari. Where the Is Arenas was little more than an elaborate piece of scaffolding—a cheap and expedient alternative to the crumbling Stadio Sant’Elia—Udinese intend to create something that will endure for many decades. Artist’s impressions of the ‘new’ Stadio Friuli depict a simple but sleek exterior which draws conscious inspiration from Juventus Stadium.
Its eventual capacity will remain roughly the same as it is now—close to 25,000—but the facilities will be greatly enhanced. All seats will be covered, with heating during the winter, and wi-fi access throughout the venue. Two new Jumbotron screens will be installed and, if demand proves sufficient, further restaurants opened as well.
Six thousand square metres worth of inside space remains unaccounted for in the club’s existing plans, leaving scope for further upgrades to be made in consultation with the fans. Outside the stadium, an Udinese museum will be constructed, and the club is even reported to be considering the installation of two swimming pools.
The Udinese owner, Gianpaolo Pozzo, has stated his intention to have the stadium completed by the end of 2014. Toward that end, the project of renovations has already been split into two separate strands. The first involves eliminating the existing running track; the second involves rebuilding three of the stadium’s four stands.
While the latter stage cannot begin until the club has received all the necessary clearances, the former is scheduled to commence on 13 May, one day after Udinese’s final home game of the season. After removing the running track, the club will relocate the pitch towards the stadium’s west stand—the Tribuna—home to the aforementioned new restaurants, and the only section of the stadium which will remain standing throughout the renovations.
The other three stands, the Distinte and the two Curve, will all be knocked down and re-built from scratch, though Pozzo has stated his intention to stagger the process so that the club can maintain a reduced capacity of around 14,000 at the stadium throughout the 2013-14 campaign. He remains adamant that, unlike Cagliari, his team will not play any home fixtures away from their home ground.
To Pozzo, these upgrades were not so much a question of desire as necessity. “If we hadn’t done this, we would have lost a great part of our support over the next 5-10 years,” he said after securing the leasehold. “It was an essential step. The TV broadcasters are constantly improving their product, so if the stadium isn’t comfortable the fans will stay at home on the sofa, which is more comfortable and costs less.”
There are many factors that have contributed to the falling attendances at Italian football games in recent years, from the increased ease of watching games on TV, or indeed online, to the hostile atmosphere generated by certain groups of Ultras. But Pozzo is unquestionably correct that the shabby state of most grounds has also played a role. At present the Tribuna is the only section of the Stadio Friuli with a roof. Who could blame supporters in the other stands for choosing to stay home on a rainy day – or even a baking hot one?
Similar problems abound across the peninsula, yet in the vast majority of cases nothing is being done to address them. Despite the positive example set by Juventus, most owners simply do not have the resources to construct their own new stadiums. In that regard, the model pursued by Udinese ought to be encouraging.
Pozzo has estimated the club’s expected initial outlay on renovations at just €26m. Raising such a figure should not be beyond most top-flight teams, especially when doing so brings the promise of enhanced revenue streams in future. The Udinese owner has promised that the new stadium will be a “seven days a week” operation. At present, most venues sit empty except on game days.
Indeed, the leasing out of stadiums benefits the local authority, too. While Udinese’s rent might seem modest the city council will incur no more maintenance fees, and as part of their agreement with the club are granted use of the facility for 15 days each year during which they can host concerts and other such events that might further benefit the city. The new stadium has been designed in such a way as to allow the city to increase capacity to 33,000 for these types of events.
The Mayor of Udine, Furio Honsell, meanwhile, argues that the positive impact of football itself should not be underestimated. “It is always emotional to open something new in a space which has witnessed as many magical moments as this stadium,” he told reporters after helping to formally open the new restaurants at the Stadio Friuli. “Football should be a release which helps us get through these tough [economic] times.”
It is for all these reasons that the Italian Football Federation are understood to be highly enthusiastic about Udinese’s project. Although they cannot formally pass judgement until studying the club’s detailed plans, development officer Michele Uva, one of the body’s foremost voices on stadium construction, has let it be known that he considers Udinese’s approach a model for others to follow.
As good as that sounds on paper, however, the reality is that it might not easily be copied. Udinese have been able to take this step only because they happened to find themselves working with an extremely co-operative local authority. Honsell won his position as mayor in 2008 on a ticket which included the explicit promise of helping Udinese to upgrade the Stadio Friuli.
Even so, the process wasn’t straightforward. Talks began between the club and Honsell as early as 2009, yet it still took two years for both parties to reach agreement on the 99-year lease. Then, just as they were preparing to sign a contract, the courts intervened, insisting on an open and public bidding process for the lease. Honsell duly obliged, but then the first round of bidding had to be abandoned after details of Udinese’s offer leaked into the public domain.
Only after a second round of bidding did Udinese formally win the leasehold. That was in July 2012, but it took a further eight months before the contract actually got signed, as tweaks were made to the proposal. Between petty squabbles and bureaucracy it had taken four years to reach agreement between two parties that were sold on the project from day one.
“It seems like Columbus’s egg now, but we were fighting for 10 years to make this happen,” said Pozzo. “Honsell achieved a bureaucratic miracle … We have put forward many projects over the years; everybody was supportive with their words, but then nobody did anything.”
If that truly is the case, then what hope could there be for a team which did not enjoy such cordial relations with the local authorities? It is such considerations which have prompted so many to stall on the stadium issue. Many owners and directors continue to insist that they are simply waiting for the Italian government to pass the much-discussed Stadium Law which was supposed to remove some of the bureaucratic hurdles to the construction of new venues.
In reality said law has been lost in the system for so long now that it is hard to keep faith in it ever being passed. It requires only approval from the senate at this stage, but between Italy’s present political turmoil and the country’s enduring economic difficulties it is hard to imagine it becoming a priority any time soon. As La Repubblica’s Fabrizio Bocca noted a while back: “Born with the best intentions, [the Stadium Law] has done nothing but worsen the situation.”
As tempting as it is, then, to imagine that Udinese’s success can pave the way for others, there are still many obstacles to that ever being the case. The only sure thing here is that this remarkably well-run club has achieved another coup. Serie A’s teams recorded combined losses of €292m last year, yet Udinese turned an €8.8m profit. Only Napoli, with profits of €14.7m, posted better financial results over the same period.
Udinese have proved that their model of developing young talents before selling them on can be a sustainable one as they’ve turned a profit in four of the past five years. The club will now be on an even stronger financial footing going forwards, able to rely on the increased game-day and commercial revenues that stadium ownership brings.
“The new stadium will bring us new resources, better wages, longer contracts,” said Pozzo. For a team has already punched above its weight in recent seasons, finishing fourth in 2011 and third in 2012, that is a wonderful place to be.