Udinese’s time to shine and compete with Serie A giants

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President and owner Giampaolo Pozzo is behind the club's surge to the big time.

Serie A club Udinese have lived their existence largely in the shadows of Italian football’s giant clubs, with one or two star names – such as current Captain Antonio Di Natale or Brazilian hero Zico – allowing them to emerge for brief periods in the spotlight.

This past summer however, the Zebrette completed an ambitious project that puts them at the very forefront of the game on the peninsula, opening their brand new Stadio Friuli. Built at a cost of around €30 million, it is one of just four privately owned stadiums in the country and is actually a complete renovation of a place they have called home for almost forty years.

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Securing a 99-year lease on the land from the local council, Udinese have created a viable template that Italy’s other clubs should now be seeking to follow with their own dilapidated, government-owned grounds. The state of Serie A’s stadiums harms both the growth of each individual club, and the general attractiveness of the league as a whole, something which cannot continue if they hope to keep pace with the likes of their counterparts in England and Germany.

Removing the unused athletics track and bringing the stands closer to the pitch, Udinese opted to cut the original capacity of the Friuli by almost 50% in hope of increasing the atmosphere and a desire to play before a full house. Yet they have also retained the identity of their old home, keeping the distinctive arch that sweeps across the main stand and dominates the local skyline, while also completing the work in stages so as not to force the team to play home games elsewhere.

The club has also worked to improve its hospitality, creating the “Club House” concept which allows members to use the facilities beyond just the duration of the game, seeing the stadium become a thriving business centre. Leading the club on this path are President and owner Giampaolo Pozzo, as well as his daughter Magda, who is Head of Special Projects at Udinese and played a vital role in the execution of these renovations.

The duo showed us the very best the Friuli has to offer, then sat down to discuss the stadium and what it means to them in an exclusive interview. Here’s what they had to say.

The New Stadio Friuli is much smaller than its previous incarnations, how did you come to make that decision?

Giampaolo Pozzo: “Football has changed compared to the past. Today there is a lot of competition for the stadium as all the games are also broadcast on TV and it’s no longer conceivable to have the same crowd as we once did. So now we must focus on the quality of services we offer, and the stadium must be comfortable and attract fans with its beauty and not just the game of football. We set the capacity at 25,000 so as not to prevent us from hosting concerts and other events.”

Having seen attendances drop below 15,000 in recent years, what is a realistic average crowd for Udinese now and do you intend to have initiatives to attract new fans to games?

Magda Pozzo: “The realistic average attendance is around 16,000 people. We expect an increase of between 20 and 30% given all the new services we offer on match days, which are things you see at most modern European stadiums today. At Udinese we are very active in targeting families and children, creating one of the most important soccer academies in Italy as there are more than 20,000 children playing here or in affiliated teams all over the country.

Only you, Juventus, Sassuolo and Frosinone have modern stadiums. Why do you think others have not followed suit and does that slow the growth of Italian football as a whole?

GP: “The root issue is bureaucracy. In Italy you have to overcome many obstacles as there is no specific legislation on these matters, while problems with local government also play a part. The stadia are mostly owned by the city councils and often the relationships between those administrations and the clubs are not so good which leads to delays and hamper various projects.

“Then there is also the overall cost of such an operation. It is still a huge commitment in terms of economic and financial investment, but the only way to survive in football at this level is to own your own stadium.”

That is very true. So how were you able to overcome that problem and make such changes to the Friuli?

GP: “We have always believed we must make this move, and it is thanks to the open approach of the Mayor of Udine – and his administration – that we found the right path to take. I hope our project can become a model for others and inspire them to do something similar because it’s a fact that teams in the richest leagues own their stadia which are modern, welcoming and comfortable.”

Despite the help of Mayor Furio Honsell and his staff, there must have been difficulties along the way. Can you tell us what they were?

GP: “The main difficulty was identifying the type of stadium we wanted to build. After deciding we wanted to do so in harmony with the old Friuli that removed many of the problems as we no longer had to deal with urbanization, parking or transport link issues.”

How important do you think the new stadium is to the future of Udinese, and how will it impact the club moving forwards?

MP: “This Stadium will play not only an important role for Udinese and the city of Udine, but for Italy in general. As was just noted, it sets an example of the renovations that most of Italian Stadiums should go through. It is vital for our players because they finally feel the affection of the fans more closely and it will also help supporters to feel a greater sense of belonging to the team, city and region.

“Our objective is that the new stadium will become a family-friendly environment that is open 365 days, a multifunctional space with different activities. A unique concept in Italy.”

Did you ever consider leaving the Friuli to play elsewhere?

GP: “Never. We are bound to this stadium. It would have probably been easier and cheaper to leave and build a new stadium elsewhere but this thought was never considered as we wanted to renovate this place. It has been the home of Udinese since 1976 and we can proudly say we have succeeded.”

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