Gianni Agnelli, Fiat and the making of the modern Juventus
When the phone first rang, Giovanni Trapattoni was asleep. Most people were at that time in Turin in 1976 – it was, after all, 6.30am. But when the phone rang again another morning, at the same hour, Trapattoni had made sure to set his alarm for 6.25am. The last thing he wanted – the last thing anyone in Italy wanted – was to be caught off guard by l’avvocato.
L’avvocato, the lawyer, as the whole of Italy knew him, was Gianni Agnelli, the most admired and powerful man in the country. By that hour Agnelli had usually been up for a while. He would rise at 5am, eat muesli, drink tea, read the news, then dial up his friends around the world: presidents, bankers, writers, artists, the Kennedys, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller. Agnelli might call to discuss Fiat, the giant automobile company he ran. He might want to talk about finance, given that his family holdings gave him control of a quarter of the Italian stock exchange. He might gossip with royals, given his status as the de facto king of Italy. Or he might check up on Juventus, the club he owned, who on that morning in 1976 had just hired Giovanni Trapattoni.
The next time the phone rang at 6.30am, Trapattoni was ready and picked up. Bleary he might have been, but he did not mind the early hour. He felt more sorry for the Agnelli family butler, who had to make the initial call to check that the recipient was awake. “Poor devil,” Trapattoni wrote.
A familiar voice came on the line. “Good morning, Trapattoni,” Agnelli said. “How are you?”
Trapattoni might have been nervous. It still seemed odd that Juve had hired him, particularly if Agnelli had made the decision. The son of a factory worker, Trapattoni had grown up in Cusano Milanino, a town just north of Milan, and spent almost his entire career as a hard-running ball-winner for AC Milan, winning the European Cup in 1963 and 1969 under Nereo Rocco, one of the masters of catenaccio. Trapattoni valued pragmatism and modesty. No matter how far he had come, he always reminded himself that he remained, at heart, the boy from Cusano Milanino.
Agnelli loved everything that was beautiful. He drove fast cars, dated gorgeous women and owned lavish palaces all over Europe. His art collection was so large that he had to build a villa just to house it. A fashion icon, Agnelli wore his tie askew, kept his collars unbuttoned, and strapped his watch over his cuff. Although he owned Fiat, his charisma made him less of a businessman than a celebrity. “Gianni Agnelli was educated to be the prince of Piedmont and everyone has always treated him that way,” said Carlo De Benedetti, a Fiat CEO in the 1970s. “People never ask if Agnelli is good at business, if he has made or lost money. They ask if Agnelli is optimistic or pessimistic, if he is favourable or unfavourable. He’s from the royal family.”
All of which made it curious that the club Agnelli owned had hired Trapattoni. Not only was Trapattoni a disciple of Rocco, who was hardly an aesthete; at 36, he barely had any managerial experience. In his solitary full season as coach, he had led AC Milan to third in Serie A. So unlikely did Trapattoni consider his own appointment that when he was offered the Juve job he began to laugh. But Agnelli had always liked to take risks. This applied as much to football as to life, a fact his friends would have confirmed, sometimes ruefully.
Agnelli’s love affair with Juventus began in childhood. In 1899 his grandfather, Giovanni Agnelli, founded Fiat. Having become the largest producer of cars in Italy, Fiat took control of Juventus in 1923. Giovanni’s son, Edoardo, became the president of Juventus and he in turn took his eldest son, Gianni, to see Juve train and play. Juve won Serie A five times in a row in the 1930s. At eight, Gianni was already used to seeing i bianconeri win everything.
But in 1935, Edoardo’s seaplane capsized when it hit a floating log, and the propeller sliced open his head. Gianni had lost his father. Mentored by Giovanni, Gianni went on to study law at the University of Turin, hence his sobriquet ‘the lawyer’ (though he never practised law). When the war came, he fought on the Eastern Front, where he was wounded twice and nearly lost a finger to frostbite. He also served in North Africa, where he was shot in the arm by a German officer in a bar fight over a woman. Gianni had been taught always to behave and never to complain. The story has it that after he had been shot, he merely finished his drink, stood up and left.
After the war, Giovanni, whose Fiat factories had produced cars and military machinery for Mussolini, was forced to resign over his cooperation with the fascists. He died soon after, in 1945. That same year Gianni’s mother, Virginia Bourbon del Monte, the daughter of a Roman aristocrat, broke her neck in a car accident.
At 24, Gianni had become the head of the family. But running Fiat was too much for him at the time. His grandfather had advised him to spend some years having fun before turning to business. And so as Vittorio Valletta, a family friend, took charge of Fiat, Gianni fled to the south of France. There he blew US$100,000 on the Leopolda, a 28-room, 20-acre villa by the Mediterranean that had been owned by King Leopold of Belgium. At the Leopolda friends would join Agnelli for weeks at a time, drinking, gambling and snorting cocaine. Guests included the Dominican diplomat, racing driver, polo player, soldier, alleged assassin and al-round playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, Spanish racing driver Alfonso de Portago, film executives Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck, actor Errol Flynn and the Sicilian prince Raimondo Lanza.
Womanising was also a popular hobby among the Leopolda crowd, and one in which Agnelli indulged. The odds were in his favour: he had a patrician face, a deep suntan, curly hair brushed back, wealth, wit and charm. Among the many women Agnelli dated were the actress Anita Ekberg; the fashion designer Jackie Rogers; and Pamela Harriman, the divorced daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill. Agnelli would invite women to ride in his Ferraris, one of which had three seats in the front, another of which had the licence plate ‘1’. He’d take them onboard his black racing yacht, or his red sailing boat, which he would steer wearing only a towel. “I really loved everything beautiful in life,” Agnelli would say. “And a beautiful woman is the most beautiful thing of all.”
Amid the carousing, Agnelli also served as president of Juventus from 1947 to 1953. During the spell, his only one in an executive role at the club, Juve won just two league titles. If it’s hard to say how much time Agnelli spent on Juve at that time, it is fair to say that he spent a lot of time on other things. The only thing he feared was boredom. He loved the Cresta Run in St Moritz, Switzerland, on which participants slide head-first down a winding ice track on a small steel sled at eighty miles an hour. He survived a series of skiing accidents. Where others leapt into the Mediterranean Sea from diving boards, Agnelli would jump straight from his helicopter. He sped through Turin city centre like a racing driver, an experience that Kissinger, one of his many passengers, called “hair-raising”. Police officers who saw Agnelli break the law just greeted him and waved. On one rare occasion, however, a pair of officers stopped him. “Avvocato, do you have to drive your Ferrari on our streets?” they said. “Did you really think we wouldn’t stop you? We wanted to check out your car.”
In 1952, after a night out, Agnelli drove his car at 125mph into the back of a meat truck near Monte Carlo. His right leg was fractured in seven places. He spent nine months in bed and years on painkillers. The accident seemed to jolt him out of his adolescence. A year later, still on crutches, Agnelli married Marella Caracciolo di Castagneto, an Italian noblewoman, and stepped down as president of Juventus. Soon he began working at Fiat with a view to replacing Valletta. That Agnelli had been living it up for a while did not preclude a career in business. “He had been a playboy when he was young,” said the journalist Gianni Riotta, “but no decent Italian is going to be put off by that.”
In 1966, after three years as managing director at Fiat, Agnelli succeed Valletta. He was 45. With his business acumen and his connections, he made Fiat into one of the biggest car producers in Europe, while expanding its portfolio to included banking, textiles, food and insurance. Yet the work did not seem to thrill Agnelli. “I’m not sure being a businessman makes one so happy,” he said. “It is not a dream. It is a duty.”
What was a dream was guiding Juve back to the top and Agnelli began to take greater interest in the club. A year after he had stepped down as president in 1954, the role had passed to his brother Umberto. A shrewd administrator, Umberto had signed the Argentinian forward Omar Sívori from River Plate and the towering Welshman John Charles from Leeds United. Those two joined the captain Giampiero Boniperti in forming Il Trio Magico, a trident that had trickery (Sívori), power (Charles) and strategic nous (Boniperti). Together they fired Juve to three league titles between 1958 and 1961. A year later, however, Umberto resigned, and in the following decade Juve won the scudetto only once.
The good times did not return to Piedmont until the Agnellis gave the presidency to Boniperti in 1971. Juve promptly won three league titles in four years. Coached by Čestmír Vycpálek, the uncle of Zdeněk Zeman, Juve lost out only in 1974, when the Swansea-raised Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia led Lazio to an unlikely triumph. Given Juve’s success, it was a kick in the teeth when Torino nabbed the scudetto in 1976. Juve reacted by firing Carlo Parola, who had succeeded Vycpálek, and hired Trapattoni. It was Boniperti who talked Trapattoni into taking the job. When Gianni Agnelli first called his new coach, Trapattoni was asleep. But then Trapattoni picked up the phone.
Agnelli, it turned out, had a modest reason for calling: he wanted to know everything. He would bombard Trapattoni with questions about the players; who was in form, who was not. Trapattoni was happy to talk and even happier to discover that Agnelli’s private life had little in common with the culture at Juventus. The Agnellis ran their club like a business, with order and sobriety. To his astonishment, Trapattoni also found that nothing ever leaked to the press. It probably didn’t hurt that the Agnelli family portfolio included two of Italy’s biggest newspapers.
What also pleased Trapattoni was the quality of the squad. Just as Agnelli had exquisite taste in art and fashion, so his club picked the right players. Over the previous few years Juve had signed the dominant goalkeeper Dino Zoff from Napoli, the aggressive stopper Claudio Gentile from Varese, the elegant sweeper Gaetano Scirea from Atalanta and the versatile midfielder Marco Tardelli from Como. Trapattoni then asked for, and got, the attacking full-back Antonio Cabrini from Atalanta, the uncompromising ball-winner Romeo Benetti from Milan and the athletic poacher Roberto Boninsegna from Inter. Some of the deals were negotiated by Agnelli, who soon struck up a close relationship with Trapattoni. “He was an educated man who had great respect and elegance,” Trapattoni said. “But he also had great football knowledge.”
Before the season began Juve made their annual visit to Villar Perosa, the Agnelli family estate, where Gianni would take the team and the staff for a stroll. He would then watch the first team play the reserves. Often he’d advise Trapattoni on tactics and team selection and, while Trapattoni insisted that he was never ordered to do anything, he did say that, sometimes, Agnelli’s suggestions “were important”. Agnelli loved chatting to the players, most of whom treated him with awe. If Agnelli did not call them in the early hours, he might arrive at the training ground in a helicopter, climb down and have a chat. Then he’d turn to Trapattoni and ask whom he was planning to use on Sunday. Trapattoni knew whom Agnelli liked, but telling l’avvocato that one of his favourites would be benched was ill-advised. Instead, Trapattoni would turn vague. “Him?” he’d say. “Well, we’re still evaluating his fitness…”
The first season was a great success for Trapattoni. Juve beat Torino to the title. They also lifted the Uefa Cup, despatching Manchester United en route. The next season Juve defended the scudetto. As Juve’s most famous fan, Agnelli seemed to enjoy the spectacle. At one point he was asked whether he’d like to see the best team win or Juve win. “I’m a lucky man,” Agnelli replied. “Often the two things coincide.”
Some might have wondered how Agnelli had time to run Fiat and follow Juve. But that would be to underestimate his appetite for life. Just as in his younger years, he slept little and was easily bored. He could visit three cities in a day – Rome, Paris, London – then come back to Turin. He made regular trips to New York, where he’d buy art; the French Riviera, where he’d sail; and St Moritz, where he’d still swoosh down steep mountainsides, his shattered leg wrapped in a steel-and-leather brace. The friends who joined him were signing up to a schedule liable to change. “Remember, he never goes anywhere for very long,” said Prince Nicolò Pignatelli. “I have been to Africa with him for half an hour and when he discovered it was too hot we were back at his home in the Alps in two hours. So you go some place with summer clothes and end up in a place where you need winter clothes.”
In the late 1970s, however, Agnelli had to fix things more important than Juve. The decade was chaotic for Fiat. Rising oil prices and competition from Japan had slashed their income to the extent that, in 1976, Agnelli had opted to sell off 10 per cent of their shares to Lafico, a Libyan government investment arm controlled by Colonel Gaddafi. Agnelli also had to face domestic terrorism. The left-wing terrorist group Red Brigades were kidnapping and killing business executives and politicians, their most famous victim being Aldo Moro, the former prime minister, whom they murdered in 1978. Agnelli had reason to worry about his own safety: four Fiat executives were shot dead.
Yet Agnelli did not fear the terrorists. As executives fled Italy, he believed it was important that he, the owner of Fiat, the beating heart of the national economy, stay in Turin. Refusing to live under armed guard, he walked freely in the city centre and turned up to see Juventus. He drove a Fiat to work, which he felt was crucial to his image. What fewer knew was that he had installed a Ferrari motor under the hood, enabling him to keep up his usual speed. According to Taki Theodoracopulos, a magazine editor and friend of his, a terrorist once said that he had had Agnelli in his sights on the road but had been unable to catch him.
Parallel to the threat of terrorism came the communist-backed rebellion from the trade unions. They wanted better conditions for Fiat workers, many of whom came from the poorer south. As the recession in the car market bit deep, Fiat said they would lay off tens of thousands of workers. The conflict came to a head in 1980, when workers went on a five-week strike, forming barricades in front of the factories to halt production. Trapattoni too felt the consequences: when he suggested a player to Agnelli, he was told to find a cheaper option. Juventus, Agnelli explained, could not be seen spending big on players at a time when Fiat workers were losing their jobs.
As angry as the unions were, however, taking on Agnelli had its complications. Fiat had built schools and provided pensions for many of those who now defied it. And while Juve were the most hated team in the country, they were also the most loved. Many workers who protested against Fiat during the week would turn up to watch Juve on Sunday. Eventually, in October 1980, a group of 40,000 Fiat workers marched through Turin demanding to be allowed to work again. The counter-protest helped settle the dispute and opened the door to a new decade in which Fiat, and Juventus, would flourish.
By the time Fiat had quelled the strike, Juve had missed out on the title in consecutive seasons. It hadn’t helped that foreigners were banned from Serie A, a measure Agnelli cursed. But in 1980 the ban was lifted, and Juve moved to sign the Irish playmaker Liam Brady from Arsenal1. It paid off: Brady went on to fire Juve to the scudetto in his very first season.
In 1981, Juve added the clinical striker Paolo Rossi, even though he was serving a two-year ban for his role in the 1980 Totonero match-fixing scandal. Clubs were by then allowed two foreigners each, so Juve also recruited Zbigniew Boniek2, one of the finest attackers Poland has produced. Yet Agnelli wasn’t content with that. Towards the end of the season, as Juve and Fiorentina slugged it out for the title, he set his eyes on Michel Platini, the ingenious Frenchman whose contract at Saint-Étienne would be up in summer. In late April, Platini and his agent flew to Turin in secret. Leaving the airport in an armour-plated limousine – the Red Brigades were still around – they met up with Boniperti, who sealed the deal. “We’ve paid for a slice of bread,” Agnelli announced, “and they’ve given us foie gras!”
But that meant Juve had one foreigner too many. And so three days after Brady had been told his contract would be renewed, he learned that he’d be sold. What had turned Agnelli against him, Brady believed, was Juve’s loss in November to Anderlecht in the second round of the European Cup. “That was the holy grail,” Brady said. “They couldn’t view themselves on a par with the likes of Real Madrid unless they won it. Inter and AC Milan had it over Juventus because they’d won it. That was a big thing for the Agnelli family.”
Yet the league season was not yet finished. On the final day of the Serie A season, Juve trailed Fiorentina on goal difference as they travelled to play Catanzaro. When Juve got a penalty 15 minutes from time, it was Brady who stepped up and scored. As it turned out, Fiorentina could only manage a 0-0 draw at Cagliari, handing Juve their 20th scudetto. In the summer, Brady left Turin having won two league titles in two years. “What happened at the end at Juventus was very hard for me to understand then, but I understand now,” he’d say. “It was shocking to me at the time, but that’s the way it is. There was a foreign player Agnelli wanted – Platini – and what Agnelli wants, he gets.”
That summer in 1982, after Italy had won the World Cup, Juventus dreamed of a Serie A and European Cup double. But one early worry was that Platini struggled to settle. At first he sparked jealousy among his teammates, who called him not Michel but “the French”. Platini also had issues with anxiety that sowed doubt in the press. He smoked. He suffered from insomnia. But when Platini eventually got going, Trapattoni said he had never seen a player like it. Though a midfielder, Platini would become the Serie A top scorer in his first year, with 16 league goals. In 1983, he’d win the first of his three consecutive Ballon d’Ors.
Such brilliance must have pleased Agnelli, who adored players with flair and invention. Agnelli would often tease his players. He called Boniek bello di notte – beautiful at night – ostensibly because he always played well in evening games, but perhaps also because he felt he did not play as well during the day. But Platini was one of the few who could answer back to Agnelli. Once, Agnelli entered the dressing room and found Platini smoking a cigarette. “That worries me,” Agnelli said. “You only need to worry if he starts smoking,” Platini shot back and pointed at Bonini. Another time, Platini gave a Ballon d’Or award to Agnelli. “Is it real gold?” Agnelli asked. “If it was,” Platini replied, “I wouldn’t give it to you.”
As talented as Platini was, Juve came up short that season. They finished four points behind Roma, though the real killer was the final of the European Cup, which they lost to Hamburg after an early goal by Felix Magath. The defeat was such a blow to Trapattoni that he decided to resign. He informed Boniperti. Unflustered, Boniperti asked him to just wait another day. By the time Trapattoni opened the papers the next morning, Agnelli had told the press that Trapattoni “has been, is, and will continue to be our coach”. Nobody was going to contradict l’avvocato. “He silenced everyone,” Trapattoni said. “Myself included.”
Agnelli’s faith in Trapattoni led to a glorious spell. The next three seasons Juve won the league twice, plus the Cup Winners’ Cup (1984) and, at last, the European Cup (1985), marred though it was by Heysel. But as winning became a habit, Trapattoni began to fear that people thought anyone could win with Juve; that the secret was the players and the club, not the coach. In 1986, a decade after his first phone call from Agnelli, Trapattoni resigned.
Years later, Trapattoni would reflect on his biggest triumphs in Turin. “With another president,” he said, “I don’t know if I would have pulled that off.”
Trapattoni would return to Juve in 1991, but with less success. As for Agnelli, he stepped down from Fiat in 1996, aged 75. With Boniperti having left his role at Juve in 1990, control of the club soon passed into the hands of Roberto Bettega, Antonio Giraudo and Luciano Moggi. Carlo Ancelotti, who coached Juve from 1999 to 2001, would write that Agnelli never really connected with the trio. Yet just as when he had been eight years old, Agnelli still enjoyed seeing the stars run out in black and white. “I have been spoiled in my time,” he said, “to have all these great players: Omar Sívori, Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane… I perhaps indulged myself more than I should.”
Right until his death in 2003, Agnelli continued to call Trapattoni, as well as Juve’s coaches and players. Antonio Conte has still not forgotten a night in December 2000, when Juve had just played their last game before Christmas. Conte and a friend named Adriano decided to hit the town in Rome and came back to their hotel at 5am, crashing into bed. But then the phone began to ring. Still half asleep, Adriano extended his arm and picked it up.
“Hello? This is the Agnelli house. Is this Mister Conte? L’avvocato wants to speak to him.”
Adriano covered the mic and turned to Conte. “Either you are making fun of me,” he said, “or this is actually l’avvocato Agnelli, and he wants to speak to you.”
Conte sat up in his bed and looked at the clock: 6:30am. “Give me the phone!” he screamed.
“Yes, hello… This is Conte.”
A few seconds passed. Then a familiar voice came on the line.
“Good morning Conte, how are you? Don’t tell me you were still sleeping?”