AP Interview: Fiorentina's American owner is a soccer lifer
By ANDREW DAMPF
ROME (AP) From Calabria to Pennsylvania, then the Bronx and beyond, new Fiorentina owner Rocco Commisso has been on the move his entire life.
Whether it was acclimating to the United States after immigrating at the age of 12, climbing the corporate ladder toward becoming the billionaire chairman of cable television company Mediacom, or fulfilling his dream of running a soccer club in the country where he was born, Commisso's intinctive charm and charisma have always been factors in his success.
So has his talent for playing the accordion.
Back in 1963, just a week after moving from Pennsylvania to the Bronx, Commisso won a talent show for his accordion mastery and gained the notice of a local movie theater manager.
"I don't know if it was a job, because I didn't get paid, but he asked me to play every Wednesday between the double features. At a theater on 233rd Street and White Plains Road," the 70-year-old Commisso said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"Eventually I asked the manager to do me a favor and write me a letter of recommendation to get into Mount Saint Michaels (a private Catholic high school in the Bronx), which he did, and I got in without ever taking the co-op test. All because of my accordion."
Mount Saint Michael Academy was a short walk from Commisso's home on 241st St. near the end of the No. 2 subway line.
Nearly 60 years later, Commisso can still reel off the Bronx addresses of his childhood without hesitation.
And he can still play the accordion - as evidenced during an impromptu performance on a Tuscan radio station in October when he reproduced the festive notes of Fiorentina's anthem.
Born in the southern seaside town of Marina di Gioiosa Ionica, it's no surprise that Commisso grew up as a fan of Juventus - Fiorentina's hated rival.
Gioiosa is located in the still-impoverished Calabria region, where with no major local clubs to support, rooting for Italy's best team is common.
More generally, though, Commisso has always been a fan of Italian soccer.
"I've been approached from the bankers, from the people that know me, from the people that heard of me, to invest all over Europe and the U.S.," Commisso said. "But at the end of the day my dream was always to invest in Italy and with a top club."
While much has been made of Commisso's publicly expressed interest in buying AC Milan a year before he closed the deal for Fiorentina in 2019, Commisso pointed out that he first approached Fiorentina before any dealings with Milan.
"My interest in Fiorentina started in 2016 before I bought the New York Cosmos, because the Della Valle family had it on the market through their investment bankers," Commisso said. "We made an offer and nothing happened. We made a second offer the year after, nothing happened. In 2018, after the Milan situation, I spoke to them again in the fall of 2018 and they were asking for too much money and I told them to go back home."
The Della Valle's decision to sell became more urgent last season when Fiorentina risked being relegated to Serie B.
"So they called me back, they had made the decision they wanted to get out," Commisso said. "We met again in New York in May of 2019 and within two, 2 1/2 weeks we closed the deal. I think it's a record."
Fiorentina struggled again during the first half of this season, prompting Commisso to fire coach Vincenzo Montella in December and hire Giuseppe Iachini. The move has paid off, with Fiorentina currently on a four-match unbeaten run - a draw and two wins in Serie A and a victory over favored Atalanta in the Italian Cup.
While Italian clubs are often taken over cheaply during periods of bankruptcy or extreme debt - like when the Della Valles purchased Fiorentina in 2002 after it had been ordered to restart in the fourth division, or when Aurelio De Laurentiis claimed Napoli in 2004 in the third division - Commisso paid an estimated 160 million euros ($180 million) for Fiorentina.
"This is one of the largest investments that's been made, largely because it did not come out of bankruptcy," Commisso said. "So if you look at the investments that were made in Napoli, Roma, Lazio, Torino, Sampdoria, Parma. A lot of those situations were in bankruptcy. Fiorentina, too, they were bought for nothing.
"So this is real money, a real investment. . And we have major plans to invest even more money going forward."
While Commisso is still battling the Italian bureaucracy to build a new stadium for Fiorentina, he already purchased private land on Florence's outskirts to build the biggest training facility in Serie A - at a cost of more than 50 million euros ($55 million).
Foreign owners are becoming the norm in Italy and European soccer. But Commisso says he's different from the likes of Jim Pallotta at Roma, Joey Saputo at Bologna, Joe Tacopina at Venezia or the American hedge fund Elliott Management, which controls AC Milan.
"The differentiating thing with me and the other Italians is I was born in Italy and I played soccer. I'm the only one really, of the major foreign investors, that could make the case that I played and coached and have been involved in soccer for at least 50-60 years," said Commisso, who was co-captain of Columbia University's soccer team.
"I don't know the game better than someone who has been playing professionally - let's not get carried away - but I never invest in any other sport," Commisso added, mentioning the other interests of owners at European champion Liverpool and Arsenal. "I'm only one sport and I've only been attracted to one sport, which is soccer.
"And it's my money, as opposed to other people's money."
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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf
Updated January 23, 2020