Who is Massimo Cellino? And what is life like with him in charge of your club? With the Italian closing in on a takeover of Leeds United, the YEP asked supporters of Cagliari – the club he bought in 1992 – and members of the online forum Quelli Del Sito to reflect on 22 years in Cellino’s hands. This is their collective response.
Q: What is Massimo Cellino’s reputation like among the supporters of Cagliari? Is he popular and is he respected?
A: Historically there has always been division among supporters of Cagliari. Even the Ultras were divided about Cellino’s reputation. Back when there were two groups of Ultras (there is only one now) their different positions resulted in episodes of violence inside and outside the stadium. Overall you hate him or love him. You can’t be indifferent about him.
But among the supporters there was a certainty that Cellino could be the only owner of the club. This is because of general indifference among Italians about buying Cagliari. Bearing that in mind, all-in-all we were satisfied with the ‘inevitable’ management we had.
As the recent news about possible new Qatari owners came out, the attitude among the fans changed quickly. During a match between Cagliari and Milan, for the first time at the stadium some fans ‘invited’ Cellino to leave Cagliari.
Now, after the ‘Fiat 500’ statement [Cellino’s comment that he was “running a Fiat 500 in Italy, now I have the chance to run a Ferrari” at Leeds], the majority of supporters can’t stand him and want him to quit the club. He’s had to bear insults and criticism on websites and social networks. This never happened before.
As a person he’s very particular and a good poker player. He loves impossible challenges. He also loves to do things alone, and he often says the opposite to what he really thinks or does. He changes ideas repeatedly (36 coaches at Cagliari in 22 years!) and he’s stubborn, hard-headed. For sure, he’s not a diplomat.
Q: As a club, what have been Cellino’s main successes during his time as owner of Cagliari? Has it been a happy, stable period?
A: As a businessman, his main achievement is his financial strategy. He’s always got the maximum output with minimum effort. Of course that’s not a satisfaction for supporters but along with it I would mention the positives: the regular payment of footballers’ wages (not so usual in Italian football), a lot of seasons in the Italian premiership (17 out of 22 years in Serie A) and the ability to make the best of every transfer - always gaining a lot of money despite very low costs. He has done this through selling players like David Suazo, Alessandro Matri and Radja Nainggolan.
Q: As a team, what have been Cagliari’s biggest achievements since 1992?
A: The race to semi-final stage of the UEFA Cup in 1994 and the excellent placement in that competition (we lost to Inter Milan having beaten Juventus in the previous stage). But that was a legacy from the previous owners (the Orrù family) rather than a Cellino achievement. Also, the historical 2007-2008 stay in Serie A [Cagliari escaped relegation despite an awful first half of the season]. We call that ‘salvation history’.
Q: Do you think that since 1992, Cagliari as a team have achieved more or less than they should have done? Do you consider the past 22 years to have been a success?
A: You can’t be absolutely sure but a defeat against Udinese during the 2009-10 season with Massimiliano Allegri managing Cagliari is probably the best example of the many chances we’ve lost during these years. Cagliari were very close to reaching fourth place and consequently the Champions League.
Considering the environment of Cagliari and club’s budget, you couldn’t say that we should have done better than finishing every year with a modest performance in the major league. Cellino never spent much on improving the team (on the contrary, he always spent very little) so because of that the achievements have been very good. With a bigger effort, things could have been better. But this is all based on ‘what-ifs’ and ‘buts’.
Q: In the past two decades, what would you say have been Cellino’s biggest mistakes? What has he got wrong?
1) Awful management because of his difficult character. People working with him or near him seem to find it a hard situation. He has a strong, single-minded personality - a very moody kind of person. Here are two examples. After coach Roberto Donadoni was sacked, he told the press that when he was relieved of his job, it was never explained to him why. “Not only that, since that day we have not even had a chance to speak,” he said. Even the fans did not understand why Donadoni was sacked. The other example is David Suazo. In August 2011, Cellino said “Suazo is like a son”, “a prodigal son”, “the icing on the cake” [Suazo was set to rejoin Cagliari from Inter Milan]. In the last minutes of the transfer window, his profile was removed from the Cagliari website. We weren’t told why.
2) He had very bad relationships with the mayors of Cagliari, Elmas and Quartu Sant’Elena, in addition to problems with the administrative district, police headquarters, the judiciary, Roma, Napoli, Juventus and other examples too many to list. He also had difficult relationships with certain coaches and relationships with some players ended badly.
3) Stadium issues. Playing home games in Trieste, 1000km away, and at the Is Arenas is probably going to remain the worst experience in the recent history of Cagliari. The sadness caused from the loss of our side (considering that Cagliari is really representing an entire region, Sardinia) won’t ever be repaired, not even with a Scudetto.
Stadio Sant’Elia [Cagliari’s traditional home] is now a bunch of rubble and we don’t know when or if this situation will be settled. For economical convenience the stadium has never had proper maintenance and this caused a distressing scenario which, all-in-all, is forcing Cellino to sell Cagliari. We are waiting for confirmation of the sale.
Several times Cellino told the press that “Cagliari was going to despair without a new stadium.” Cellino’s leaving Cagliari without a new stadium but the club will not disappear. The fans will always be here.
Q: With Cagliari leaving their stadium before returning and playing games at two other venues, exactly how big a problem has the situation been for Cellino?
A: A giant problem. There was no more income from ticket sales and we had no idea for months about where we were going to play matches. We played for an incredibly long period in Trieste, far away from Cagliari in north-east Italy, and it cost nine million euros to build the Is Arenas stadium - which was then taken apart nine months later. This has caused big trouble for Cellino and he was imprisoned one year ago. Wherever he planned to build a new stadium, he’s always had problems with Italian judges. Now there are several trials he’s involved in.
Q: Cellino is facing an embezzlement trial over matters relating to the construction of the temporary Is Arenas. How much attention is paid by the fans to that or his previous criminal convictions?
A: In Italy the legal process is very, very long. We also give a different weight to criminal convictions than in England, and we react in a different way - in a more distant way.
Sure, what happened around Is Arenas is important because after all it’s connected with public money, public authorities and complicated laws. But who knows how many years it will take to get the truth? It doesn’t help anyone - not the club, Cellino or the supporters - to have so little idea of what really happened.
Q: How does Cellino treat the supporters of Cagliari? Does he listen to their opinions or does he ignore them?
A: Basically, he doesn’t care about supporters issues or their points of view. We used to laugh about trying to predict the crazy new action of our unpredictable owner. He’s a smart and brainy man and in Italy the most important thing for a football club owner is the relationship with the local press. Some say even with the Ultras (they are the only ones in Cagliari who have the strength to challenge someone like him). He’s always been skilled with them. But in Leeds he’s been heavily criticized by the fans, mostly for trying to sack McDermott.
When he figured out that situation, he quickly changed his mind. As one Italian journalist wrote: “The man is so talented: he understood the importance of making connections with supporters and local press - neither soft nor tender ones in (Leeds).”
Another iconic case about the supporters’ relationship with Cagliari is referred to as the ‘black list’, created by Cagliari in 2012. It was used to ban from the stadium a bunch of supporters who were asking others not to go in Trieste for the last four games of the season. It was the first time ever that Cagliari played games in another region - the most important matches, 1000km away.
Q: Over the years Cellino has earned a reputation for selling good players at a very good price. Does it anger the supporters to see players sold like that or do you support his financial strategy?
A: In general for a small side as Cagliari is, this is not the wrong strategy. However, it depends how you act, when you act, and which player you sell.
We agree in selling players at a convenient price (Cellino has been able to trade players for a price higher than what they are worth) but only if you then invest a significant part of the income in improving the team. This has happened very rarely in the Cellino era.
A quite recent example is the forward, Matri, sold in January 2011 to Juventus for 18m Euro. They needed Matri and with Cagliari in a comfortable position in Serie A, Cellino did a very good deal without risking relegation. But Matri was never replaced with another forward. Cagliari’s bank balance is still thanking Cellino for this. But the supporters...?
Q: Do you believe that Cagliari are better off as a club now than they were when he became owner in 1992? What situation was the club in back then?
A: You have to separate the economic and financial side from the sport side. From an economical point of view, Cagliari are better off than in 1992. The club has had 20 years of financial stability. Lots of clubs went out of business in the meantime but we didn’t.
Talking about football, we should discuss the worst defeat ever. Cagliari over the years have lost the supporters’ faith. They are depressed. In 1992 there were 38,000 fans at all Cagliari games. Today, the attendance for home matches attendance is about 5,000. The capacity of the old Sant’Elia stadium has gone from 70k to 35k to 20k and so on. At the moment only two of four sectors are available for fans.
Lot of fans say they’re not going anymore because of Cellino’s role and the way he’s managed Cagliari. They say they’ve lost their passion and thrill for the team. At the start of a season you can guess with a reasonable percentage of success the final league position. It makes things quite boring - following a club without ambition.
Bear in mind that Cellino has never aimed to create a better team or a more competitive team. What he wanted was to have strong stability in Serie A, nothing more.
But it’s true that in the 90s everything was different, and football too. In 1992 we were a very tough team, even though we were unbalanced. In fact, we saved our season in an incredible way against every prediction. The previous owner, the Orrù family, had no more money to invest in the team so they sold everything to Cellino. He was very young at the time with a lot of enthusiasm but a lack of experience. He’s compensated over the years.
Q: Cellino has sacked 36 coaches during his time as Cagliari owner. Are the fans supportive of that strategy or would they have liked to see certain managers given more time?
A: Sometimes he did the right thing, sometimes it was pure irrationality. Some decisions were questionable and some very wrong.
Among the 36, we remember with love Bruno Giorgi, Giovanni Trapattoni, Oscar Tabarez and Massimiliano Allegri (sacked in 2010). But there were a lot of failures. Renzo Ulivieri was the only one in 22 years who made Cellino declare “I was wrong in sacking him, I should have listened to the supporters.” We’d have liked to have seen more time given to Edoardo Reja in 2004-05 season and Donadoni in 2011-12.
Q: Overall, would you describe his 22 years as Cagliari owner as a success or a failure, and why?
A: A great success but just for him. Nowadays he’s much richer than 20 years ago. In fact, he’s able to purchase Leeds United in an apparently easy way!
Despite some great emotion for supporters (the UEFA cup semi-finals, heroic promotions), it won’t take much for us to forget this long period of 22 years.
Two relegations, two promotions to Serie A and a lot of very low ranks in that league, with the only hope to stay in Serie A. No more, never - without praise or blame.
Q: It appears that Cellino is about to sell Cagliari to a Qatari family. Would you be sorry to see him leave the club or do you think new owners would be good for Cagliari?
A: We are going crazy for this. Because of these rumors, we feel happiness after a 20-year sleep! We’re ready to celebrate this change. It would represent a big event and we are looking forward to it - if it’s true.
Cagliari is not such a big club or city, with quite moderate supporters. To bring back passion, the new management would not need to spend billions (but if they spent a lot of money we would be delighted). We just need a serious program for the future in order to improve what we actually have. In our opinion, Cellino is to blame for a lack of planning since we reached Serie A in 2004. Maybe it was his will - to keep things as they are without spending a Euro more than necessary.
Q: Do you think Cellino is suited to owning an English football club? Do you believe that he and the supporters at Leeds United will be able to work together?
A: He’s a top manager, no doubt about it. The man knows what he’s doing. Besides, if he’s investing his own resources he takes care of his money. He’s the man Leeds’ debts. He’ll be able to lessen or pay off their debts.
The Premier League’s got a very big charm, especially the revenue it represents. That must be the first goal for him - to increase his revenue - so he’ll do everything he can to reach that result at a reasonable price.
But who knows if he will be able to perform in a different environment? At Cagliari he decides everything on his own. Working together at Cagliari is a unknown concept. Everything was decided by his unquestionable will. In England it doesn’t work that way but it’s not so hard to imagine that he’ll be excited and convinced he’ll succeed. He likes to be the star. Thirty six sacked coaches are proof of this.
Q: In your opinion, why do you think he wants to get involved in English football?
A: Money. Only this.
CELLINO’S CAGLIARI TIMELINE
1992: Buys Cagliari from the Orru brothers, Antonio and Ignazio. Becomes club president.
1993: Cagliari qualify for the UEFA Cup under coach Carlo Mazzone.
1994: The club’s UEFA Cup campaign ends in the semi-finals with defeat to Inter Milan. It is still seen as one of the highlights of Cellino’s time as owner.
1996: Cellino is charged and convicted of defrauding the European United and the Italian government. He receives a suspended prison sentence which is later expunged on appeal.
1997: Cagliari are relegated from Serie A after losing a play-off against Piacenza.
1998: The club win an immediate promotion from Serie B, finishing third in the division and maintaining an unbeaten home record.
2000: An horrendous season in which Cagliari win just three times sees the club relegated again with 22 points.
2001: Cellino is convicted of false accounting at Cagliari. He receives another suspended sentence.
2004: With Gianfranco Zola in their squad, the Rossoblu fight their way back into Serie A as Serie B runners-up.
2005: Cellino steps down as president for one year. He is replaced by Bruno Ghirardi. In this same year he moves to Miami.
2012: Cagliari are forced to leave their Stadio Sant’Elia due to safety concerns. They play a number of games in Trieste, some 800km away, and some at Stadio Is Arenas, a custom-built ground close to their traditional home.
2013: Cellino is arrested in Stadio Is Arenas on suspicion of embezzlement and false representation relating to the stadium’s construction. He is imprisoned and then placed under house arrest. He is currently awaiting trial.
2014: The 57-year-old bids for Leeds United and strikes a deal to buy 75 per cent of the club. At the same time, reports in Italy say he has agreed a deal to sell 98 per cent of Cagliari to Qatar’s Al Thani family.