Most famous journalist in the world

22 Sep, 2023 - 00:09 0 Views
Most famous journalist in the world Fabrizio Romano

eBusiness Weekly

Jem Bartholomew

I first got in touch with Fabrizio Romano (pictured), the world’s best-known soccer journalist, some months ago.

He was working up to the climax of his reporting on the multi-billion dollar world of soccer transfers — transfer deadline day, the dramatic and chaotic last day a player can be transferred to most European clubs. This year it was September 1.

Romano’s live stream marked the end of the transfer window, a two-month period when European soccer clubs buy and sell players for millions, or even hundreds of millions, of dollars. Romano, who works for himself, consistently outpaces traditional news organisations with the scoops he breaks during those months.

I asked if I could visit he and Francesco Porzio, his right-hand man and fellow Italian soccer journalist, to see how they worked. They said it would be very busy. But, Porzio said, “It’s possible, of course.”

When I arrived in Romano’s base city, Milan, a place that throngs with soccer agents and sporting directors looking to cut deals, I found Romano had just left for Florence.

“I will return probably tomorrow or tonight, I still don’t know,” he told me by voice note.

The pressure of transfer deadline day seemed to be weighing on him. On his daily YouTube videos, with views regularly clocking over a quarter-million, the bags were growing under his brown eyes.

The other night, about three hours after falling asleep, he said he dreamt of missing out on transfer news about English club Chelsea. The dream woke him. And it seemed to underscore his desire to stay solitary.

“This is my personal point of view,” Romano told me, “I want to keep it quiet around me in the final days and to be completely alone.”

Instead, I embarked on a journey to understand the strange world of soccer transfers, and the vast journalistic business built on its back, as Romano himself had once done.

The European soccer season runs from August to May each year. When it is active, there are dozens of games a week in the so-called big five leagues — England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France — and across domestic and pan-European knockout competitions.

(Obsessives also follow teams in the leagues below those, or rising leagues like Major League Soccer. But, like the storied world of Central and South American soccer, they represent something of a different ecosystem.)

Fans are kept constantly entertained by the drama on the pitch, by fierce historical rivalries, by spats between coaches and players, coaches and other coaches, and coaches and referees.

And that’s without mentioning the ridiculous haircuts, the enraged pundits, and the increasing pull of sinister geopolitics — major clubs that started as neighbourhood teams a century or so ago must now cope with sanctions against their Russian owners, or navigating being bought by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates.

It’s Real Housewives, but with blood-quickening face-offs between elite-level players raised from childhood to be capable of the scarcely plausible with a ball at their feet. At the top of the tree — for approximately six or so big clubs in each nation—are unimaginable riches and global fame.

Participation in the Champions League — the elite competition in Europe, open only to the top finishers in each league — is worth at least seventeen million dollars, and over ninety million to the winner.

The right player can make all the difference. And there are not that many judged capable of that “rightness”.

So in those lonely, empty months when the season is on hiatus, football fans — about five billion people, according to FIFA, soccer’s global governing body — obsess about their teams’ efforts to sign that one magical figure who will make the next season the best yet.

“There are people who are more obsessed by transfers than every other part of fandom,” Andy Mitten, a journalist at The Athletic, told me. To them, it’s “more important than going to the games, the actual results of the matches.”

In 1995, when a landmark legal ruling loosened the transfer market, the record price for a player — the fee one club pays when it secures the services of a player contracted to another — was equivalent to US$16,5 million (paid by the Italian club AC Milan for the winger Gianluigi Lentini). By the end of the decade it had gotten close to US$40 million.

Over the past ten years, the global market for transfers has ballooned again — from US$2,66 billion in 2012 to US$6,5 billion in 2022. More than US$4 billion of the latter was devoted to just 276 of the total 20,209 transfers. Figures that once seemed ridiculous to secure talent are now commonplace.

In 2016, Paul Pogba moved to Manchester United from Juventus for around US$116 million. In 2017, Neymar smashed the record by moving to PSG from Barcelona for almost a quarter-billion dollars.

This summer the helter-skelter climbed even higher as clubs from the state-owned Saudi Pro League, in efforts to rival Europe’s dominance, spent almost a billion dollars acquiring players.

“The transfer market is like a jungle,” Romano says. “Anything can happen.”

Football agents who once met and conducted business in freeway service stations now do so in opulent mansions, and at the finest hotels and restaurants.

(Neymar’s agent, his father, pocketed a reported forty million dollars in commission back in 2017.) Fans track the private jets of players and clubs or watch the car parks at the club offices for the telltale Lamborghini or Rolls-Royce that will signal one player or another is in the building.

Clubs, meanwhile, scramble to win over players, agents, and families, placate enraged rivals who stand to lose a player, and perform the high-stakes bureaucracy to complete a signing. At least one major transfer has foundered on a fax machine failing to work as midnight ticked closer.

As that day approaches, the only thing that moves quicker than transfer gossip, which long ago overtook facts, is demand for even more.

“Someone told me a long time ago, ‘I like transfer news — please, every day (write) transfer news, and I don’t care if they’re right or wrong!’” Christian Falk, head of football at German media organisation BILD Group, told me.

Soccer fans want stories, fast.

Romano (30) is soccer’s most recognisable transfer reporter — and therefore probably the most famous reporter in the world. He has over eighteen million Twitter followers: about the same as superstars Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland combined.

His catchphrase when a deal is confirmed — “Here we go!” — has become part of soccer’s global language, repeated by clubs, players, and policymakers.

He has been called the “pop-star of the internet age”, the “king of transfer rumours”, and, in the words of one super-agent, “the boy who seemed to know everything”.

Romano’s magic trick has been getting people to trust him in a business that often runs on suspicion.

He’s done that by applying extremely old-fashioned reporting skills and building a reputation for accuracy, speed, and trustworthiness that more traditional news reporters can only dream of.

“He works hard to do what he does,” Mitten told me, “and has built an army of young followers who hang off his every word.”

Romano was born in February 1993 and grew up in Naples. His father, Luigi, furnished him with a love of football. By the time he was sixteen he had decided to be a football journalist. In 2010, Romano wrote his first article for Tutto Mercato Web, a transfer gossip site.

It was soon after that someone called him, out of the blue, to ask if he’d report the transfer of a young Argentinean striker who was signed to Barcelona, Mauro Icardi, to the Italian club Sampdoria. Icardi was, then, a relative nobody. But it was Romano’s first scoop, and he was hooked.

At eighteen he moved to Milan to attend college. But he soon found himself chasing deals again. He went to work for Gianluca Di Marzio, a reporter at Sky.

“For me that opportunity at Sky was like going to (the) university of journalism,” Romano told me.

The key, as for any beat reporter, was building a network of trusted contacts.

Transfer reporter turned agent Kai Psotta remembered what it took to build out his source base: “I had an editor in chief who said to me: ‘Psotta, I don’t want to see you in the office. Go out. Meet people. Go out to eat. Get your license to play golf.’”

Romano said he worked twenty-hour days roving the streets of Milan, trying to bump into the market movers — they would congregate at five-star hotels like the Palazzo Parigi or the Excelsior Hotel Gallia — for scraps of gossip.

It took a social investment that many online-first journalists shied away from.

“You have to take time to go for this dinner — and if you sit there two or three hours drinking a bottle of wine together, you will get another relationship, another feeling for each other,” Falk told me.

For the young Romano, Milan was the “city of transfers.”

In hotel lobbies and outdoor cafés, you can practically hear the deals being quietly closed. Milan has “the calciomercato . . . the transfer of players is happening in Milano,” Pierfilippo Capello, head of sports at Deloitte Legal in Milan, and son of the legendary Italian footballer and manager Fabio Capello, told me.

That means “it’s always useful to be there”. The work, and the proximity, started to pay off for Romano.

In 2013, the Icardi contact had an update. The player was moving from Sampdoria to one of Italy’s giants — Inter Milan. Romano broke the news, this time a major scoop. He was twenty, and on the map.

During transfer season he often sleeps only five hours most nights — from 5am to 10am. His screen time on July 5 this year was seventeen hours, thirty-seven minutes. Volker Struth, a German agent, has written of Romano’s relentless calls that all begin with, “Hello friend, how are you?”

Falk recalls being at dinner in Milan with Romano recently. Through the entire meal, Falk said, Romano was on his phone, talking about ongoing deals — checking, clarifying, double-checking. Falk’s teenage son was shocked by the workload. Falk asked him why he couldn’t put the phone down.

“That’s why I don’t have a girlfriend,” Romano said, according to Falk. He may have been referring to the enormous pressures of his role. Last year, he broke news of the Spanish defender Marc Cucurella’s $70 million move from Brighton to Chelsea. Brighton tweeted to deny the story, which prompted two days of vicious online attacks on Romano—until the transfer was finally confirmed.

Romano won’t reveal his sources, of course. But Psotta says that when he did the job, he had informants at airports, taxi ranks, hotels, restaurants.

“We knew the number plates of all the Bayern [Munich] players and their wives by heart,” he said. Psotta now works as an agent with Struth; his job involves keeping information out of the press until the time is right. “Fabrizio is fast. And good,” he said. “He’s always breathing down our necks. He is a rock star.”

Romano got his biggest scoop when Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the era’s biggest stars, returned to Manchester United from Juventus in August 2021.

Romano and Porzio scrambled to launch a live Twitch stream once they got the exclusive news. To an audience, Romano says, of almost a hundred thousand—“more than Camp Nou watching Barcelona”—Romano paused, took an inhale of breath, and said, “Here! We! Go!”

The moment seemed to signal that Romano, as a brand, had outgunned the news organizations that were competing with him for the story—that this scrappy freelancer from Naples had arrived as king of the transfer jungle.

Romano has described the feeling of breaking such exclusives as “scoring a goal in the Champions League final”—but building a career is something different. “Being first is not an obsession,” he told me.

“My obsession is to be respectful, in the relationship with my sources. With people in the industry, my priority is to be correct.”

That is no mean feat in a world where reporters are just another negotiating tool. An agent might ask a reporter, Capello told me, to add the names of famous teams to transfer rumor stories to jack up the price.

Or to add other team names as a smoke screen to obscure a player’s true destination. (Asked if he had ever deployed these kinds of tactics himself, Capello said no, but that his colleagues did, before adding, “Even if I was involved I wouldn’t tell you.”)

Striking the balance means Romano sometimes misses stories he says he knew about—that Haaland, one of the most exciting strikers to play the game for some time, would sign for Manchester City from Borussia Dortmund, and that the World Cup–winning Argentinean defender Nicolás Tagliafico would move to Lyon from Ajax—because he respects his sources’ needs. “I prefer to wait,” he says.

He combines those very old-fashioned values with a mastery of new media. During November of last year, he posted on Twitter on average sixteen times a day.

On his YouTube channel, which regularly clocks over a quarter-million views, he sits in front of a blank wall, AirPods in his ears, looking straight down the lens as he says, breathlessly, “Hey guys welcome back on the channel Fabrizio Romano here as always to keep you posted on the transfer market! Let’s jump—into it—together!”

Watching Romano, you realize that the transfer window is a time of fantasy and wish fulfillment—a time when you can hope that, with the right signing, this might just be the season your team finally wins big. A few weeks in which the future shimmers. Romano isn’t selling gossip or rumors or even facts. He’s selling dreams.

In the days before the transfer deadline I searched for Romano in the places he built up his impeccable source-base. The doorman at the five-star Palazzo Parigi hotel didn’t recognize the name.

I had no more luck at Antica Osteria Cavallini. “I have no idea,” said the porter of a building rumored to contain an office for Juventus’ sporting director.

There seemed to be a flicker of recognition at Romano’s name on the faces of maître d’s at the Excelsior Hotel Gallia and the restaurant Botinero, but both refused to help.

Only the doorman of the Westin Palace hotel offered assistance. “Fabrizio Romano? Yeah, I know him,” he said, “but I’ve not seen him.” Did he know where I could find him? “Moving—maybe—around many hotels,” he said, gesturing out towards Milan.

While I searched for Romano, he focused on breaking news. In the final days of the window he broke scores of exclusives. But the summer had proved a new challenge. Saudi Arabian spending meant developing new sources, working out who to trust all over again. Some Saudi transfers had been “full of fake people trying to enter the story,” Romano said in an interview recently.

On transfer deadline evening—in a white T-shirt and bright sneakers, his brown hair cut short and beard cropped close—Romano sat on a sofa beside Porzio and Aviv Levy Shoshan, head of the Double Tap agency.

Heineken sponsored the stream. Forty-thousand tuned in and fans pleaded with Romano in the comments to prioritize their team.

Barcelona and Manchester United, two of the sport’s biggest clubs, were working hard to get transfer business completed in the final hours. As the stream got going, Romano rushed out the room mid-sentence and put his phone to his ear to take a call. “Hello my friend,” he answered. It was almost time for another Here We Go.

Even after the clock ticked down to zero, Romano didn’t relax.

Between 1am and 3am, after the window shuts, he says he texts all the agents and lawyers and sporting directors who provided information to say thank you. Preparation for the next window, which opens on January 1.

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