At the end, for once, James Pallotta was still. It is not something that comes easily to him. Pallotta, AS Roma’s president, is, by his own admission, inclined to motion. When he attends games, he prefers to stand, rather than sit. At home, in Boston, he turns on televisions in five rooms and paces between them.
For that one moment Tuesday, as the final whistle blew on Roma’s 3-0 defeat of Barcelona, the culmination of one of the greatest comebacks, one of the greatest shocks, in Champions League history, he simply stopped and watched.
In the stands, 56,000 Roma fans were hugging, bouncing, singing and celebrating Roma’s charge from a 4-1 deficit after last week’s first leg against what was shaping up to be one of the great teams in Barcelona history.
“Thousands of people, crying their eyes out,” Pallotta said in a telephone interview Thursday.
On the field, the players and the coaching staff were racing, ricocheting around. In the directors’ box, the club’s executives veered between ecstasy and astonishment. Only the president took a step back and soaked it all in.
“I have never seen anything like it,” Pallotta said. “People just going bananas.”
He did not leave the Stadio Olimpico for some time that night. There were interviews to do, guests to greet, each of them passing on breathless congratulations. He went to the locker room to celebrate with his players and his coach, Eusebio Di Francesco.
It was deep into the small hours of Wednesday morning when he arrived back at the steps of his hotel, the Hotel de Russie, around the corner from Piazza del Popolo. He has stayed there on every visit to Rome since he took control of the club, in 2012. When he returned, the Roma fans among the staff were decked out in the club’s colors — yellow and a red verging on burnt orange — to welcome him.
“One of them, Alessandro, told me that there were thousands of people on the piazza,” Pallotta said. “He said, ‘You go, you go.’” Pallotta obeyed. On the way, a member of his coterie suggested he should jump in the fountain that sits in the center of the square. Pallotta, 60, thought it sounded like a great idea.
He took off his jacket and removed his cellphone and credit cards from his pockets: This, it turns out, was not his first rodeo. He strolled up to the fountain, sat on its lip, and tumbled in. “And then I thought: Let’s get something to eat,” he said.
It was only later, in his hotel room, that it occurred to him that Rome’s authorities do not take kindly to people jumping in its fountains. On Wednesday, he apologized to the city’s mayor and accepted his $280 fine. He also pledged $280,000 to help restore another fountain, in front of the Pantheon.
“I do not condone people jumping in fountains,” he said. “But if you do, you should pay to fix them.”
Tuesday night was that kind of night in Rome. Roma had not reached the last four of the European Cup since 1984, and few had given the team a hope against mighty Barcelona, against Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez and the rest. “When the draw was made, all of the Spanish newspapers said it was easy,” Pallotta said. “One of the headlines was ‘Roman Candy.’”
By the time he had eaten, dried off and gone to bed, he could still hear gleeful fans singing in the streets. It was the sort of night, in other words, when the billionaire American owner of an Italian soccer team jumping into a fountain felt like a “great idea.”
If Pallotta’s celebration was exuberant, the work that made it possible was significantly cooler-headed. Since taking control almost six years ago — he first invested in Roma, in a minority, passive role, in 2008 — Pallotta has done all he can to turn what was once a debt-ridden, chaotic club into a sleek, sophisticated outfit.
It seems a strange gauge, but Roma’s approach to social media and its business endeavors offer an insight into Pallotta’s vision.
In 2015, the club recruited Paul Rogers from a similar role at Liverpool to oversee its digital content. Last summer, Rogers’ team produced a run of videos during the transfer window that went viral: a spoof of the ubiquitous, homemade highlight reels that litter YouTube; a film of midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini playing as himself on the video game FIFA; a pastiche of a video made by Southampton to skewer Roma’s own satirical announcements, featuring quite a lot of goats. Rogers described Roma as “owning weirdness.”
Funny as those films were, the strategy was significant. Pallotta, like many American owners in soccer, sees his team as a content company. The premium content, of course, is the sport itself, but that is just one element. “If you want to be a worldwide brand, you have to create content 24/7,” he said.
Pallotta now believes Roma creates more content than most of its peers. Its website was named Best in Class at last year’s Interactive Media Awards. It is, Pallotta said, one of the “fastest growing teams in social and digital media.” Roma is starting to rival clubs of far greater resources and historical scope.
That is not the only advancement. Roma has recruited specialists in ticketing, marketing and branding, a quiet revolution in the staid, conservative world of Italian soccer. Pallotta hopes to break ground on a new stadium, after considerable delays, in December; it will be an entertainment and retail venue, and he believes it will be one of the most-used facilities in Europe.
Roma is also investigating machine-learning to try to refine its scouting processes. Pallotta hired a Canadian statistician, Luke Bornn, as head of data, analytics and software, then replaced him last year with a Scot, Stephen McCarthy.
The work is still in its comparative infancy but proved crucial in Pallotta’s greatest coup: tempting Monchi, the longtime sporting director of the Spanish side Sevilla, and widely regarded as a man with a golden touch in the transfer market, to Rome last year. Monchi, Pallotta explained, had pursued in Seville a version of what Roma was trying.
Monchi was impressed when he saw what Pallotta’s data scientists were doing at their Boston war room. “He saw that we could take what he was thinking and bring it to fruition,” said Pallotta, who is confident that Roma’s analytics work is more sophisticated than that of “99 percent” of its peers.
There is, here, a parallel with one of the three teams that Roma might face in the Champions League semifinals. Pallotta has known John W. Henry and Tom Werner of Fenway Sports Group, owner of Liverpool, for years. Henry, whose own team knocked off Manchester City on Tuesday, called Pallotta to offer congratulations after Roma’s defeat of Barcelona. “I missed the call,” Pallotta said. “I think I was in the fountain.”
FSG has spent much of its tenure aware that it cannot outspend clubs backed by vast commercial revenues, oligarchs or sovereign wealth funds, just as Roma cannot hope to compete financially with Juventus, at least while the new stadium remains mired in red tape.
Although it has taken several missteps, FSG, too, has discovered that it has to be smarter than its rivals, if it cannot be richer. It has adopted a data-driven recruitment strategy, revamped its commercial team and found new ways of monetizing its passionate support. Manager Jurgen Klopp, hired in 2015, has helped plenty, too.
The reward, for both, is a place in the final four of the world’s most prestigious club competition. Both would, of course, reject the assertion that they were punching above their weight — Liverpool has won the European Cup five times — but, in financial terms, both remain underdogs when compared with their prospective opponents, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and their recent victims, Manchester City and Barcelona.
That they are both here, within touching distance of a final, of glory, is vindication for all they have done; it also offers hope to others that the latter stages of the Champions League are not an entirely closed shop.
Not that Pallotta, at least, is quite satisfied. Not long after he took charge of Roma, he gathered together the club’s staff at its training facility, Trigoria. He gave a presentation outlining his ambition for the team, then spoke with another 150 or so employees outside, by another fountain.
“I said that at the end of the day, all I wanted was to be celebrating titles with them by jumping in the fountains of Rome,” he remembered. He took that as his cue, and duly leapt into the water. “I thought it was heated,” he said. “It wasn’t. This was the middle of January.”
Should Roma reach the final, should the unthinkable happen, Rome’s mayor can expect another apology, and another donation, by the end of May.