The Roma south sea ‘bubble’ of 1963 that almost forced a merger with Lazio

Paul Pogba in 2016 and probably Kylian Mbappe in 2017: the world-record transfer fee continues to rise at an alarming rate and the likely move this summer of the young Monaco striker could see that record rise above the £100m mark for the first time.

Such are the riches in the game today that these vast sums barely put a dent in the bottom lines of Europe’s elite clubs. This was not always the case. The dubious bragging rights in acquiring the world’s most expensive player has always been present in the game, even in the years when there was little in the way of commercialisation to make such transfers at all tenable for the buying clubs.

A doomed presidency

One of the biggest footballing South Sea ‘bubbles’ happened at Roma in the mid-1960s under the disastrous presidency of Count Francesco Marini-Dettina. That financial crisis which engulfed the club was acerbated greatly by the ill-fated world record signing of Angelo Sormani from Mantova.

The 1960s was a time of great change for Italy and for its national sporting obsession of football. The country’s economy was booming and this wealth was reflected in the millionaire industrialists who were running – and heavily financing – the country’s major clubs. Between 1957 and 1962 the Italian (and thus the world) transfer record almost trebled as a result from £72,000 to the £190,000 that Juventus paid for Luis Del Sol.

The vast rise in transfer and wage spending threatened to leave the less-wealthy southern and provincial clubs trailing far behind, an inconvenient truth broadly ignored by Count Francesco Marini-Dettina who took over the Roma presidency in 1962.

Roma had been a financial basket case for many years and its new president quickly demonstrated that prudence didn’t feature high on his list of priorities. Upon taking charge he moved rapidly to sign John Charles from Leeds United for £72,000, giving the English club a generous profit on a player in sharp decline who had been an unmitigated disaster at Elland Road. The Welshman replicated that wretched form in Rome and played just ten times.

The 1963 summer of madness

This was merely a warm up for an unprecedented spending spree by Marini-Dettina in the summer of 1963. Half a dozen domestic players as well as the Borussia Dortmund forward Jürgen Schütz arrived at an eye-watering combined cost of £250,000, a big spend almost forgotten when the president delivered a coup de grace that shocked the world.

John Charles, AS Roma 1962-63
Source: Twitter

Angelo Sormani’s father was an Italian who had emigrated to Brazil years earlier. His son developed into a tall, powerful and adaptable forward or wide player with Santos and during a tour of Europe he was signed up by Serie A side Mantova. He made enough of an impression in his two seasons there for the giants of the Italian game to take an interest, but it was Roma who jumped to the top of the queue by putting together a huge and complicated deal to acquire him.

That deal was valued at £250,000 which represented an approximate raising by 25% of the previous world-record. The transfer involved cash and a number of players in part exchange, most notably the West German international defender Karl-Heinz Schnellinger who was bought from Köln for £72,000 and handed to Mantova.

Thus Roma’s 1963 transfer campaign came in at a price of £500,000 and their first-choice team had cost a staggering £810,000 in total to put together – even the Milan side that had just become European champions was assembled for little more than half of this sum. To add a worrying dimension to this unwise spree, season-ticket sales rose by just 400 over the previous season.

That the spending was profligate was just one of the issues; the lack of planning and balance quickly emerged as a problem for this new-look team – especially in attack. With the newly signed Sormani and Schütz joining the Argentinian pairing of Manfredini and Angelillo, Roma now had four international forwards but no wingers to supply them.

Angelo Sormani, Roma 1963-64
Source: Storie di Calcio

As the calendar clicked over into 1964, even the hubristic president was unable to ignore a rapidly rising overdraft which now exceeded £500,000. He called a directors meeting to discuss the crisis and got a simple response in return: “You’re the president, you fix it”.

Financial crisis

But property developer Marini-Dettina was no Agnelli or Moratti who would consider such a sum a mere trifle and write it off with a single flourish of the cheque book. A concerned League Secretary Dr Mino Spadacini announced in response to the crisis that every club would now have to publish a balance sheet covering its income and expenditure.

Roma was put on a strict austerity programme with players sold to try to make an impression on the debt. Sormani, the jewel in the crown, was sold to Milan at a big loss after a single season in the capital but other big earners like Angelillo and Manfredini attracted only offers of player exchanges.

The overdraft continued to rise and by the end of 1964 it stood around £750,000 and represented nearly 20% of the entire debt of the top two divisions in Italy. The German forward Schütz was transferred to Messina for £20,000 (a third of his purchase price) and the fee was collected on Roma’s behalf by the federation to be put into a reserve fund.

Jürgen Schütz, AS Roma
Source: ASR Talenti

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The Liga Nazionale loaned the club £11,000 to pay late wages and see them through to the end of the 1964-65 season. Rumours even surfaced of a merger with Lazio. At a meeting supporters urged the board to sell its prime playing asset, Schnellinger, only to learn that the West German’s contract was owned by a Lombardy bank.

With wages payments stopped, the players on strike and not even enough money to pay for travel to away fixtures, strong fears persisted that the club would not make it to the end of the season. A group of loyal fans formed a group called Forza Roma and deposited 305 million lire in a local bank to tide the club over for those final weeks. Relegation was narrowly averted, Marini-Dettina stood down in disgrace and was replaced by the steadier hand of Roman politician Franco Evangelisti.

His connections and good reputation meant the club could borrow money to tide them over in the short-term while he implemented a sensible cost-reducing policy over a longer period. Judged on these terms Evangelisti was an undoubted success as he brought net debts down significantly, but his tenure ended ignominiously too.

In the summer of 1968 a rival board member appointed Helenio Herrera as Roma’s new first-team coach on a contract that made him the best-paid manager in the world. Disgusted that no lessons appeared to have been learned from past profligate mistakes by those around him, Evangelisti quit in disgust.

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