AP Interview: Udinese and Watford owners wary of restart

National Sports

FILE – In this March 8, 2020 file photo, Fiorentina’s Martin Caceres and Udinese’s Ilija Nestrovski, foreground, vie for the ball during the Italian Serie A soccer match between Udinese and Fiorentina, at the Dacia Arena stadium in Udine, Italy. Udinese president Giampaolo Pozzo recalled that the team was quarantined, after learning that Fiorentina — the team it faced on March 8 a day before the league was suspended — had three players who tested positive for COVID-19. (Andrea Bressanutti/LaPresse via AP)

ROME (AP) — After nearly 35 years of club ownership — more than anyone else in Serie A — Udinese’s Gianpaolo Pozzo is drawing on his decades of experience to confront the crisis brought on by the coronavirus.

Perhaps that’s why he prefers to be more cautious than most of his peers who are anxious to get the season — and the Italian league’s TV contract income — going again as soon as possible.

Pozzo, who turns 79 on Monday, has been adamant that the league needs a full month of training before restarting games.

That means he thinks the league’s aim of restarting the weekend of June 13-14 is “impossible” without producing a series of player injuries.

“At the minimum, we need a month to have a proper preparation like we do every year before starting the season,” Pozzo said in an interview with The Associated Press this week, when clubs were given the go-ahead from the government to resume full team training.

“Whereas we’re being super cautious about the virus, then we’re going to be totally careless about everything else?”

Last week, Pozzo angered Serie A officials when he wrote a letter to Italian Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora asking the government to step in and slow the league’s restart. He also asked Spadafora to lighten the responsibility of team physicians if players and club members get sick from the virus.

Udinese, Pozzo recalled, was quarantined after learning that Fiorentina — the team it faced on March 8, a day before the league was suspended — had three players who tested positive for COVID-19.

Fiorentina’s team physician was hospitalized with the virus and the club’s sports director, Daniele Pradè, recently revealed that he infected nine members of his extended family, some of whom were hospitalized.

“Our physicians were frightened by that experience,” Pozzo said. “They said to themselves, ‘If something like that happens here, we would be responsible according to Italian law.’”

WARY WATFORD

Pozzo’s family also owns English club Watford, which is opposing the Premier League’s restart plans.

“The conditions are not right yet,” Pozzo said. “The virus is still advancing rapidly there, at least compared to here. They’re a few (weeks) behind us.”

Watford defender Adrian Mariappa said this week that he is one of the six people to test positive from the first round of coronavirus checks in the Premier League. Two members of Watford’s staff also tested positive.

Both Udinese and Watford are hovering just above their respective relegation zones.

SUCCESS STORY

The Pozzos bought Watford in 2012 and quickly brought the club up from the second division to the Premier League.

At about the same time as the Pozzos were remodeling Udinese’s stadium to make it the first facility in Serie A without fan barriers, the family also updated Watford’s home ground, Vicarage Road.

“So we’ve achieved all of our goals,” Pozzo said of Watford, control of which he has handed over to his son, Gino. “And we want to continue.”

Last season, Watford reached the FA Cup final for only the second time in its history. Despite the 6-0 rout by Manchester City, Pozzo said merely participating in the final at Wembley Stadium was the highlight of his family’s association with the club.

He attributed last season’s success and five straight campaigns in the Premier League partly to the family’s strategy of sending players back and forth between Udinese and Watford, sometimes via loans.

“We work in synergy and it helps both clubs improve,” Pozzo said. “Because when you have an excess player on one team you send him to the other squad. It helps.”

LONGEVITY

Pozzo bought Udinese in 1986, a few months after Silvio Berlusconi purchased AC Milan.

When Berlusconi sold Milan in 2017, Pozzo became the “dean” of Serie A.

“It’s not a great record,” Pozzo said. “It means that I’m old.”

But it does mean continuity, as evidenced by 25 consecutive seasons in the top division — trailing only Inter Milan, Roma, AC Milan and Lazio.

“Our strategy has always been to rely on young players and be fortunate enough to see them explode,” Pozzo said. “There were years where that happened and we reached the Champions League.

“We’re a small, provincial club and we’ve got to get by like that. We can’t go after big-name players who cost 50, 80, 100 million euros. We’ve got to go and discover players with talent and hope they reach their full potential. That’s it. That’s our secret.”

Udinese has “discovered” a long list of players who went on to greatness elsewhere. To name just a handful: Alexis Sánchez, Juan Cuadrado, Stephen Appiah, David Pizarro and Samir Handanović.

Argentina international Rodrigo de Paul and Ivory Coast midfielder Seko Fofana — both 25 — are the jewels of Udinese’s current squad.

“We’ve got scouts all over the place,” Pozzo said. “But a lot of it is linked to good luck.”

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

___

Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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