Exclusive: Roma owner James Pallotta talks Champions League, Serie A and Mo Salah
As Roma prepare to take on Liverpool in the Champions League semifinals, owner James Pallotta sat down with ESPN FC's Mark Donaldson to talk through the club's incredible march to the final four.
MD: Jim, thank you for having us. It's a big couple of weeks for yourself and for Roma. Is it nerves or excitement right now?
JP: It's actually, probably, neither, right now. I mean it seems to be the calmest I've been for the five years or so I've been with the team. When we played Barcelona in Rome, I think it was the least amount of nerves that I've had of any game because it was just all upside and I thought if we played well we had a shot, but winning 3-0 like that was what we needed to do, so I wasn't nervous at all, I'm usually more nervous at regular games like this weekend, you know, pacing my house.
MD: It won't surprise most people to know that you are going to the United Kingdom, you fly later tonight. You're not going to the game, why?
JP: Maybe not, because I have my superstitions. I mean I didn't go to the last game in this round in Barcelona and then went to the home game and so I kind of keep doing those same things. It's just always stuff like that happens that I have. If I go back to the days playing basketball, from high school and on, I would put my left sock on first then my right, my left shoe then my right, tie my left shoe then tie my right. If my right shoe came undone, then I'd have to go back and untie my left, retie that one, do the right, so you know, I've got these little quirks.
MD: So where are you going to watch the game?
JP: I'm not going to publicly say, but there's an Italian restaurant in London that Franco Baldini and a few of us have watched games in the past so we'll be upstairs in one of those.
MD: I believe (Liverpool owner) John Henry isn't going to the game either. You don't want to watch the game with him?
JP: I think John's staying in Boston, but I think he's going to the game in Rome.
MD: Now for most it's a Champions League semifinal, but for you and John it's also a Boston derby as well. That's kind of funky as well isn't it?
JP: Yeah it's kind of cool, pretty interesting.
MD: The fact that you and he could have been business partners back in the day that could have changed your whole outlook on who you are and where you are in sport.
JP: I'm not sure we would have been partners, unless you're talking about the Red Sox.
MD: With the Red Sox yes.
JP: Well with the Red Sox, if I have gone with the Red Sox, it would have been as an investor and a minority partner in it. I had looked at it with some other people and we didn't get control of the Red Sox and John and his team and Tom and Larry got it. You know, when you look back on it, I just don't see how it's possible that we would have done as good a job as what John and Tom and Larry and the rest of them have done with the championships, and it's been amazing for them.
MD: Last June, sunny day, lunchtime in Boston, you had lunch with John Henry and you did the Mohamed Salah deal or certainly discussed it. Did they get a bargain at €42 million?
JP: Well, when you look at it now, you can say it's an unbelievable bargain. The issue at the time was that when (director of football) Monchi came in, Salah wanted to leave, he had a year left on his contract so in another year you'd get nothing. He wanted to go back (to the Premier League) and prove himself, which he certainly has done. We can't tell you that anybody else was calling for Salah at anywhere near that kind of price, so there's a lot of teams that have missed out on the great play he's had this year.
MD: You were stuck with the tab for lunch as well I believe?
JP: I told him that because he was sort of bitching a little about, "Did we overpay? I think we overpaid," and I said "I'll buy you lunch."
MD: I mean he's just been named the Player of the Year. Are you surprised by what he's done this season?
JP: Honestly, yes. And the reason is probably because look, we utilized him differently than Liverpool have. They figured out the best way to utilize him. At the time, we had him as a winger and you got (Edin) Dzeko in the middle and Dzeko's scoring 36 goals himself last year, so it's not like we didn't have someone in there tearing up the league last year. So with Dzeko there it changed a lot of how Salah would be used, and they figured out how to use him a little differently and he's much more in the middle it seems like.
Where I'm surprised, is how great he's finishing. I mean I think he would say that in Rome, while he had a bunch of goals, his frustration was not finishing the same way and now you get the ball near his feet and it just seems like he's figured a way to put it in the net. Do they have bigger nets in the Premier League? It's just been amazing watching him and every time he scores I'm like, "Oh dear God!"
MD: Some players when facing their former teams celebrate, some don't. Have you had any correspondence with him and discussed anything about that?
JP: No, but I know a lot of our players have. He's close to a lot of our players and I know that our digital team had tweeted out right off the bat about those 180 minutes will be a war but Salah will be a friend for life and he responded right back. So there's a good relationship there. I hope that he gets a great ovation when he comes back to Rome, I can't see any reason why the fans wouldn't really give him a great ovation, at least at the beginning of the game.
MD: Jurgen Klopp in his news conference asked Liverpool fans to be respectful to Roma and their team bus after what happened to Manchester City. What do you make of those comments?
JP: I think Liverpool and Man City have a little different history than Roma and Liverpool do. It seems like there were some different reasons, although I'm not going to condone anything that was going on with that bus, I think it's ridiculous. I certainly wouldn't have expected that Roma coming there, that there would be any issues, I would hope not. I think the Liverpool fans are above that, and like the Roma fans should, say "we're both in the semis, this is great, let's cheer rather than go crazy another way."
MD: Speaking of the Roma fans, how has your relationship changed, between when you first took over and how it is now?
JP: I think when I first took over and our group took over, "The Americans," you know there was a lot of, "Who are these Americans? Why are they coming here?" etc. etc. A lot of issues like that. I think we needed to prove that we weren't in it for a short period of time, trying to make a quick buck and that we were really trying to invest into Rome and build it into something.
We're still early stages in spite of the successes we've had at least getting into the Champions League the last bunch of years, most every year, and one Europa and going to the semis. So I think it was a "prove it" type of thing and I can understand that. I think my frustration sometimes was a small group of fans that would go up on their own agenda, not realizing that we were trying to do the right things, and they would get upset that I frankly might not have understood. I think things seem to be pretty good right now, but you know, hey, give me another week.
MD: You're dining at European football's top table right now, you're in the last four of the Champions League. Two teams would probably be able to beat you for any player you want in PSG and Man City. It's a bit of an oxymoron, they'll be watching you on TV while you'll be playing Liverpool in the semifinal.
JP: Right. There's a bunch more teams than that that are actually in there that are not in it. I mean Manchester United have a lot more money than most of us do and Chelsea have a lot more money than most of us, so it's not just those two. To be consistently in that top eight or 10 I think it clearly takes a couple of things and one is a good revenue stream which they have so it wouldn't surprise me if they're back and back a long time, so when we get our stadium and our entertainment complex as well as getting more types of sponsorship deals like we announced for the shirt sponsor.
I think more of that will get us into getting back into being able to consistently get into a final eight type of situation. But then again, it's not going to be just money. So the reason why, a year ago, we wooed and got Monchi in was because of his expertise in dealing with situations that have substantially lower budgets and finding players maybe younger or haven't been discovered to create a good team and he did a great job with that.
MD: So how do you get from the Roma of now to the Roma that a Salah and a (Miralem) Pjanic in years to come don't want to leave and others want to join them there with the revenue streams and everything else?
JP: Look, first of all, I think every team has players that go and go to another place. Look at Juventus, they lose (Paul) Pogba, there's those situations going on at all the teams where people leave, I'm getting news all day long that this one wants to leave a big team. How does Neymar potentially go back because he doesn't want to stay at PSG? I'm not so worried about that, in the situation in the case of a Salah, he wanted to go back to the Premier League and had something to prove there. Pjanic is just a simple thing, he had a buyout clause. We would like to have less of those than we do and work with less of those buyout clauses but sometimes you can't do anything about it so we really didn't have a choice with him either.
MD: Complete this sentence for me: In five years time you hope Roma will...
JP: Have a stadium and win a Champions League and win a Scudetto and win a Coppa Italia and maybe let me keep what little hair I have left.
MD: That's aiming high. For now, you can't win this year's Scudetto but you can play a part. What an ending to the season this could be with Juve and Napoli after their win in Turin, but Roma could have a part to play still.
JP: There's four big games as far as I'm concerned. We have to get in Champions League one way or another as I said two weeks ago and we took care of business in the last couple of games. We've got some big games left, Juve being one of them, but every single one is a tough game. You look in the league and you see Benevento winning 1-0 [over Milan] and you just look at these games. The Italian league is a very, very, very difficult, tactical, strategic league so we can't look and say Juve when we have three other games that on paper sometimes people may think they look easy but they're just not, they're not that easy.
MD: Have you ever been to Kiev [the venue for the UCL final]?
JP: I have not, no. I actually know where it is on a map, but I haven't been there. It's a beautiful city. I was with a friend of mine yesterday, who is formerly from there, 35-plus years ago and we were talking about the city. I would love to go.
MD: But you have superstitions: You only go to home games. If Roma gets to the final it is not a home game for you. Nothing would keep you away from the final?
JP: It's not a home game for whoever we might be lucky enough to play either.
MD: Nothing would keep you away?
JP: No, I don't think so.
MD: Final question, you needed a towel and something to dry yourself off after you decided to go for a little dip in a fountain?
JP: Three, because I was sitting there for the next two hours eating at the Garden of the Russie and so I had towels all over me.
MD: Let me fast forward to next Wednesday. If Roma are to beat Liverpool at home, would you have a dip in the same fountain and could you afford the fine?
JP: Well the fine was nothing, I mean the €450 wasn't that bad, it was what I said afterwards of giving the €230,000 to fix the fountain in front of the Pantheon, so the fines are nothing. I think I'm done with the fountain stuff but there's a lot of other good stuff there.
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