Why Italian soccer fans have been bombarding Boston Facebook comment sections

Boston billionaire James Pallotta has drawn the online ire of AS Roma fans. Local Facebook comment sections have become their forum.

Roma James Pallotta Daniele De Rossi
James Pallotta (left), embraces Daniele De Rossi prior to an Italian Serie A match in 2012. –EPA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO

A plethora of Boston Facebook pages have become a central setting in a global protest staged by Italian soccer fans against American ownership.

James Pallotta, a Boston native, is the president and co-owner of Italian soccer club AS Roma. Fans are blaming Pallotta — a co-owner since 2011 — for the club’s recent decision to not re-sign longtime midfielder Daniele De Rossi.

This decision, made by a soccer team on another continent, has had a major ripple effect for Boston. Thousands of Facebook comments directed at Pallotta have peppered Boston pages for much of the past week. As passionate as Boston sports fans are, their Roman counterparts have taken things to the next level.

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Here’s some background on why this is happening:

Who is James Pallotta?

The man at the center of the controversy involving Roma fans is one of Boston’s great financial success stories.

Born in Boston in 1958, Pallotta is a first generation Italian-American. He grew up in the North End with two sisters (who now co-own a Boston restaurant) and their parents.

After graduating from the University of Massachusetts (he later added an MBA from Northeastern), Pallotta quickly rose in the financial world during the 1980s. In 1993, Paul Tudor Jones II personally chose him to open Tudor Investments’ Boston office, which proved remarkably successful. By 2007, he was personally overseeing a hedge fund worth $11 billion.

Pallotta’s personal wealth also rose considerably; a 2018 study placed him in a tie for 18th wealthiest individual in Massachusetts. In 2007, he bought a 21,000-square foot mansion in Weston that Variety dubbed “The Pallotta Palace.”

He’s donated heavily in the Boston area. According to a Boston magazine profile, Pallotta has given “tens of millions” to local charities. He’s also on the board of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, as well as Northeastern.

Pallotta’s role in sports formally began in 2002 when he was part of a group that bought the Celtics. And in 2011 — having left Tudor Investments and started his own investment firm, Raptor Group — Pallotta was part of another group that bought Roma.

Why are Roma fans angry with him?

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“From our best point, we went to our worst point in a year,” explained Luca Martano, vice president of Roma Club New York, one of several American-based supporters groups of the Italian soccer team.

The “best point” Martano described was the team reaching the semifinal of the Champions League in 2018. Playing in Europe’s elite competition — the Champions League is seen as the pinnacle of club competition — represented a major success.

Pallotta celebrated a miraculous quarterfinal comeback against Barcelona by jumping into a public fountain in Rome as he partied with fans.

Yet Roma was eliminated in the next round by Liverpool. Coincidentally, the English club is also responsible for luring away multiple star players from Roma, including Egyptian Mohamed Salah.

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Since then, Roma has struggled. A disappointing round of 16 exit in this year’s Champions League to Portuguese side Porto has been compounded by poor results in Italy’s domestic league, Serie A. With one game left in the Italian season, Roma are all but guaranteed to miss out on Champions League qualification for next year.

Given the reversal of fortune, fans were already unhappy. Adding to that have been delays in the construction of a new stadium, an inability to retain star players, and managerial turnover.

But a recent event pushed fans into outright rebellion: The announcement that De Rossi would not be given a new contract.

Now 35, De Rossi has been with the club since he was a teenager. His ties go even deeper: Not only is he a native Roman, his father, Alberto, also played for (and now coaches) Roma’s youth team. As an Italian, De Rossi helped his country win the World Cup in 2006 and was seen as one of the best midfielders of his era.

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Though no longer at his peak, many fans still believed De Rossi had a role to play with the club. They also took issue with the manner of his exit, which even Roma manager Claudio Ranieri admitted was poorly handled.

“To us, especially for Roma fans from Rome like myself, De Rossi is one of us,” Martano explained. “It’s like a fan playing on the field, celebrating goals like we usually do. This is a change that we can’t and won’t accept.”

De Rossi’s impending exit after years of service has come to symbolize the list of problems that Roma fans have with the way their club has been run.

“I think the [De Rossi] issue is sort of a final straw that pushed many fans over the line with their patience,” said Peter Gianascol Olson, founder of the AS Roma Fan Club Boston.

What do Boston Facebook pages have to do with this?

After the announcement that De Rossi would not be re-signed, Roma fans protested outside club headquarters. Pallotta was uncharacteristically silent. The man who once fearlessly described himself to the club’s fans in a Facebook chat as “il f***ing President” was nowhere to be found.

Pallotta did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

“The people have the right to know,” wrote Corriere dello Sport’s Vladimiro Cotugno in an impassioned editorial on Monday asking Pallotta to come to the Rome newspaper’s offices and explain the club’s actions.

In response to the silence, Roma fans stepped up their campaign against Pallotta. This is where the Boston Facebook scene came into play. A coordinated effort from fans led to widespread commenting on many Boston-related Facebook pages, including Boston.com, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, WBZ, and even Pallotta’s other professional sports team: the Celtics.

Additionally, the Facebook page for Nebo Cucina & Enoteca, which is owned by Pallotta’s two sisters, has also seen an influx of commenting.

The messages ranged from harmless pleas of “Free AS Roma” to crude depictions of Pallotta as a pig. What was consistent was their volume: Roma fans were relentless.

“I think fans, of any sport, look for ways to be heard, and social media is the fastest and easiest way to share an opinion or launch a protest,” Olson explained, adding that he has not been a part of the Facebook commenting blitz.

“I’m still amazed about that,” Martano said. “It’s something that I don’t even think Pallotta was expecting.”

Still, Martano maintained that the more impactful efforts in his view have been the physical protest demonstrations that have taken place on multiple continents.

“I would focus more on the banners done by real people all over the world,” Martano said. “That’s something amazing. We did something here in New York, something was done in London, in Germany, Australia. Yesterday we got a message by a Roma fan in Syria. And above all in Rome. It’s something that I don’t know if it’s ever happened before. It’s something unique.”

“Hopefully [Pallotta] will take it into consideration,” Martano continued. “But I’m not sure about it.”