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Football Whispers
 By Terry Daley

In the case of Roma's Stadio Della Roma stadium project, a city awaits

Sunday's match between Roma and Sampdoria will be played out in front of a half-empty Stadio Olimpico.

When AS Roma's American president James Pallotta and the rest of the club's hierarchy presented plans for a new stadium complex in March 2014, they laid out an ambitious project with little idea about Italian bureaucracy.

The new Stadio Della Roma, designed by star architect Dan Meis and inspired by the ancient Colosseum, was presented with much pomp and ceremony at Rome's city hall on top of Capitoline Hill, which was packed with journalists and enthusiastic local dignitaries. In front of a beaming then-mayor Ignazio Marino, the club announced plans for a "seven-day-a-week hub for shopping, dining, entertainment, work, hospitality and sport" to be built alongside a new 52,500-capacity ground that would be expandable to 60,000. 

Its proposed completion date? In time for the start of the 2016-17 season. But instead of featuring a new complex, Roma will host Serie A leaders Sampdoria at their current rented home, the Stadio Olimpico, on Sunday.

The plans outline not just a stadium, but a business park, a hillside amphitheatre and over 53 hectares of public parkland. The total investment for the project amounts to €1.7 billion, of which around €440 million will be spent on public works (including a metro line extension, a new station and two new bridges over the adjacent Tiber), all in a corner of the city -- around the old Tor Di Valle horse track in the southwest of Rome -- that has been left to rot. The plans estimate an average presence of 2,000 local workers during construction and 4,000 once the site is up and running.

So far, this sounds promising for the bankrupt capital of a recession-ravaged country. But there seems to be little political will to get the project approved, let alone built. So what has been going on?

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By the time of the big reveal in 2014, Roma had already been working on the stadium plans for two years, and it wasn't until the following December when Marino's city council voted in favour of the project's public interest. Roma then presented the full dossier in June of last year, which was rejected, with the city and Lazio regional councils asking for 101 changes. At the end of May, it was presented once again to the city, which was under special commissioner Paolo Tronca after Marino fell to an expenses scandal in October until Virginia Raggi won a landslide victory in June's mayoral elections.

This is where it started to get interesting. Raggi's party, the populist Five Star Movement, has been sceptical of the project since the start, and Raggi was among the eight city councillors who voted against its public interest in 2014. Their principal objective was to the business park, and the fact that the stadium will take up just 14 percent of the constructed area, which they consider "property speculation," never mind that public works take up 78 percent of the project in terms of hectarage.

"This is because in Italy, there is the idea that -- thanks to decades in which anything went -- anyone who wants to build anything is a 'speculator,'" says journalist Fernando Magliaro, who has been closely covering the stadium issue for Roman newspaper Il Tempo. This is understandable given the rampant illegal buildings that have defiled much of Italy, sometimes with tragic consequences.

As a result, the project's 12.5-hectare business park (just 7 percent of the overall project, in reality) has raised eyebrows among many Romans, who only have to look a couple of miles up the road from the stadium site to see the scars of cowboy construction. These include the elegant but decaying ex-Rome Fair, which has been left to rot (and is part of its own row involving the city council), while four of the new Fair's 12 pavilions slowly subside.

Other concerns include the ownership structure of the stadium site, which effectively sees Pallotta rather than AS Roma (via holding companies) as the owner of the new complex. This is due to the fact that the club itself cannot afford to build a stadium (despite their record €214m revenues this year), which shields the team from any potential financial problems that may arise from the project.

However, use of the stadium has been guaranteed to Roma for the next 30 years, something that former mayor Marino negotiated with Pallotta in the run-up to the December 2014 public interest vote, along with an increase in local transport investment that made it easier to argue for the project as a public good. And there can be little doubt that the new ground would do Roma's finances a world of good; Juventus' turnover has grown by €200m since the Juventus Stadium opened five years ago, and Roma predict to increase their own annual stadium-related revenues by €50m-60m.

The Stadio Della Roma project has yet to come to fruition following its big reveal in 2014.

Regardless, in March -- before being elected mayor -- Raggi had suggested that she might move the stadium's location or even unilaterally pull the plug on the project. But she revised that position in the leadup to the elections, cryptically saying she was "in favour of the Roma stadium ... as long as it respects the law." Her city planning councillor, Paolo Berdini, meanwhile, called the project a "dog's breakfast" and vowed to "use any available means" to stop the stadium from being built "for the good of the city."

Roma threatened legal action against the city if the project was blocked -- with good reason. In theory, the city's political role was supposed to be over following the public interest vote, and from that point on, its job was a technical one: to ensure that the project had adopted the changes asked of it in 2015 before sending to the region for the final approval process.

"To pull the plug on a project, it's not enough to simply say 'it doesn't satisfy the criteria,'" Magliaro says. "You need to start a process for a vote on a new resolution that annuls or changes the public interest. This is a long process, and one that, in order not to expose the city to a billion-euro damages lawsuit, needs to have a very strong legal and technical basis."

In the meantime, the clock was ticking on the 90 days that Raggi's council had to send the dossier to the Lazio Region in order to start the final round of approvals, known in Italian law as the Conferenza dei Servizi. That period began when Roma sent the final dossier to the city, and it wasn't until a day after the deadline, on Aug. 30, that the Lazio Region received it, only without the city's expressed written confirmation that the dossier satisfied the technical requirements outlined in 2014's city council vote.

The region asked publicly for the confirmation, only for the city to say that discussion of the project would be carried out in the CDS, and that confirmation of the project's compliance was implicit in handing over the documents. Then, on Tuesday morning, the city sent another 16 pages, none of which contained written confirmation but did outline what they considered missing from the dossier. The impression is one of two political actors that don't want to take responsibility: the city for saying no and the region for saying yes.

The project is now stuck in limbo waiting for the CDS, the final leg of a four-year slog in which the city, the region, Roma and a range of other local public bodies will have 180 days to examine 55,000 pages and come to a decision. A city awaits.

Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley


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