Why aren’t the best Directors of Football more sought after? It is a question that has puzzled me for a number of years now. These are guys who can literally save a club millions and propel them in one continuous desired direction that does not depend on the vision of one single manager. Too often in football we hear of a manager being dismissed and players X, Y and Z quickly becoming entirely redundant under the replacement manager as they do not fit his system and as a consequence these unwanted players are sold at a reduced value. Almost everyday we hear of some manager aggressively trying to purchase a certain player. Rarely are there stories of a chairman relentlessly pursuing a Director of Football to steer his ship.
The importance of an excellent Director of Football cannot be overstated. In rare occasions, some clubs have the fortune of working with the same manager over an extended number of years and that manager’s vision will ultimately steer the club towards its goals (Manchester United and Arsenal being prime examples). Therefore, they do not require a Director of Football in the continental sense. But the overwhelming majority of clubs seem to aimlessly bound from one transfer to the next in the blind hope that they stumble upon a winning formula, then axe a manager and rinse and repeat their way into the red.
There is one Director of Football who particularly stands out to me. That man is Walter Sabatini. After spells in coaching and as Director of Football at Triestina, Arezzo and Perugia, he joined Lazio in 2004. Lazio had been a powerhouse in Serie A but financial meltdown in 2002 forced them to rethink their whole strategy. The club was in tatters until 2004 when Claudio Lotito became the major shareholder of the club. However, Lazio could not live the luxurious life it had previously been accustomed to and in the summer of 2004, Lotito had to sell almost all of the club’s big stars to keep Lazio alive – Jaap Stam, Dejan Stankovic, Stefano Fiore, Bernardo Corradi, Beppe Favali, Sinisa Mihajlovic, Claudio Lopez along with stars who had left the club in earlier seasons such as Alessandro Nesta, Hernan Crespo, Juan Sebastien Veron and Pavel Nedved. Sabatini, by then appointed as director of football at Lazio, was given the duty of cleaning up this mess and bring the Roman club, whose squad was devoid of any real spark and in real danger of relegation, back to the heights it had reached at the turn of the millennium.
Here are some of the notable transfers made by Sabatini during his four-year stint at Lazio:
|Name||Previous club to Lazio||Transfer fee paid by Lazio||Transfer fee received by Lazio when sold|
|Alexander Kolarov||OFK Beograd||€925,000||
€15m + Javier Garrido
|Stefan Radu||Dinamo Bucuresti||€4m||Still at Lazio|
|Stefano Mauri||Udinese||Contract Expired||Still at Lazio|
|Tommaso Rocchi||Empoli||€4m||Still at Lazio|
Although these are by no means a record of every transfer Sabatini made as the Director of Football at the Biancocelesti, it is a record of the major transfers he made. As the table clearly demonstrates, his transfer policy was extremely successful not only from a financial point of view but also from a performance perspective. Most of the names here became key members of the Lazio first team: Tommaso Rocchi and Stefano Mauri still hold the positions of club captain and vice-captain respectively. Radu is a player who, at the moment, can comfortably fetch a transfer fee higher than the amount Sabatini initially paid. Behrami is the only real dent in his record here a €400,000 loss on one player is simply a mere blemish on the magnificent record of Sabatini during his time in Rome.
The most important thing to note here is that most of these players were sold after Sabatini himself had left Lazio. The money gathered from his aquisitions allowed the club to expand and evolve. Under their new Director of Sport, ex-Lazio player Igli Tare, they spent big on talented players such as Mauro Zarate (€20m) , Hernanes (€11m) , Djibril Cisse (€5.8m) and Miroslav Klose. Since 2004, Lazio have gone from strength to strength and now sit comfortably in the top six of Serie A. Last season they agonizingly missed out on a Champions League place through goal difference and at the moment, they sit third in the Italian table.
There is no doubt that the likes of Roberto Mancini, Delio Rossi, Edy Reja, Claudio Lotito himself, and the players, all deserve major credit for bringing Lazio back from the dead but Walter Sabatini’s work is absolutely fundamental to Lazio’s resurgence in Serie A.
After he left Rome, Sabatini joined Palermo in the summer of 2008 as their Director of Football until November 2010. At Palermo, he was given more money to spend than when he was at Lazio, with the Rosanero making large profits that summer after selling stars such as Amauri to Juventus, as well as Andrea Barzagli and Cristian Zaccardo to Wolfsburg. Sabatini’s work at Palermo heralded the arrival of several rising stars who failed to live up to their billing – Andrea Raggi (€7m) and Tulio de Melo (€4.2m) being the two costliest examples. Sabatini though did succeed in bringing some major talents to the peninsula whilst at Palermo. Below are the prime examples:
|Name||Previous club to Palermo||Transfer fee paid by Palermo||Transfer fee received by Palermo|
|Abel Hernandes||Penarol||€3.8m||Still at Palermo|
|Josip Ilicic||NK Maribor||€2.2m||Still at Palermo|
|Ezequiel Munoz||Boca Juniors||€4.6m||Still at Palermo|
|Javier Pastore||Huracan||€4.7m||€39.8m (Palermo only received €22.8m due to third-party ownership)|
So impressed with Sabatini’s work at his club, Zamparini answered “Walter Sabatini” when asked by a journalist who was the best purchase in the summer of 2009. Sabatini left his Director of Football role at Palermo in November of 2010; Zamparini cited personal reasons for his departure. In April of 2011, it was announced that Sabatini would be the Director of Football during the ambitious project new North American owners were undertaking at AS Roma. There have been reports claiming that the Americans had contacted Sabatini as early as November 2010, asking him to spearhead the project until Franco Baldini was freed from his duties as the General Manager to Capello’s English national team.
Perhaps that is the reason why he decided to leave Palermo in the middle of the season. As shown above, Palermo still hold three big assets purchased when Sabatini was Director of Football and all three are almost certain to fetch considerable sums when they are finally sold. Rosanero president Mauricio Zamparini has been quoted as saying it would take bids of over €15m for either one of Hernandes or Ilicic to even contemplate selling them. Sabatini’s record here is again impressive but Palermo’s gain is largely dented by the third-party ownership involved in the Pastore sale to PSG in the summer of 2011.
Sabatini got straight down to business at AS Roma. With some impressive aquisitions already in the bag, it is yet to be seen whether Sabatini’s purchases prove to ultimately be successful. However, they are certainly promising. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the Serie A season so far involves Sabatini: the explosion of Fabio Borini. This young player joined Parma on a pre-arranged free transfer but before he even made a single appearance for I Gialloblu, Sabatini brought him on loan to Roma with a €7m option to buy. Roma have already purchased 50% of Borini for the region of €2.5m with Okaka moving to Parma on loan. Outside of Antonio Di Natale, Fabio Borini has the highest goals-to-minutes ratio of any Italian attacker in Serie A and he could be a surprise inclusion in the Italy squad for Euro 2012.
Walter Sabatini has also gained something of a cult status among the Roma faithful for his quirks. He wears two watches, one on each wrist – one set to Central European Time and the other to local time Buenos Aires. He is also a heavy smoker and often smokes whilst talking to the media. One of the more comedic moments during the new American regime’s presentation in a press conference was when Baldini was asked by a journalist why Sabatini wasn’t present. Baldini replied that because the conference was a no smoking zone, Sabatini felt no need to be there. Sabatini also has a penchant for watching matches from the highest point of view available. He can be seen among the broadcasters at the roof of the Stadio Olimpico during the Roma home games and even on the roof of buildings watching practice matches at training.
Walter Sabatini is a shining example of the importance of an excellent Director of Football. The value someone of his ability adds to a club cannot be overstated. An odd character indeed, but certainly an interesting one and perhaps a name to remember.