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Soccer: Lazio chairman resolute amid protests, threats

Fans want Lotito to 'liberate' club

25 February, 16:56
Soccer: Lazio chairman resolute amid protests, threats (By Paul Virgo) (ANSA) - Rome, February 25 - Lazio Chairman Claudio Lotito says he receives death threats every day and needs a police escort to protect him from fans of the Rome club.

But the 56-year-old businessman is standing firm amid growing protests from supporters for him to sell up.

"These protests are orchestrated by people who have other interests and want to see Lazio sold," Lotito said Sunday after Lazio managed to beat basement side Sassuolo 3-2 despite a surreal atmosphere at Rome's Stadio Olimpico.

During the match virtually everyone in the stadium held up white banners calling on him to "Liberate Lazio".

"Lazio is not for sale," added Lotito, who earlier this month said he receives around 50 threatening or insulting phone calls every day. "I'll leave it to my son".

To an outsider, it is not easy to see why Lazio fans are so angry with Lotito, even when one accounts for his arrogant character.

He saved the then-debt-ridden club from bankruptcy in 2004 and has put the club on a sound financial footing since.

The results on the field have not been bad. They have won the Italian Cup twice since Lotito took over, including last year's sweet 1-0 win over city rivals AS Roma in the final, and they have frequently qualified for European competition.

Lazio have had a relatively poor campaign this term, but even so, they are lying 10th, 15 points above the relegation zone and they are still in with a shot of qualifying for the Europa League.

Lotito, who made his money in the cleaning, health and property sectors, has been subject to calls for him to sell up, on and off, from very early in his stint as the club owner.

Initially, he irked the hard-core ultra fans by scrapping the benefits the former management gave them, such as free tickets and the ability to sell merchandise with the club's logos on.

He also upset many by offloading fans' favourite Paolo Di Canio after he made fascist salutes during several matches. But Sunday's protest suggested the depth of resentment goes beyond the ultras, even if the logic of the protests is difficult to grasp at times.

The latest surge in anti-Lotito sentiment swelled up after Hernanes was sold to Inter Milan in the January transfer window, even though the Brazilian midfielder admitted he had asked to leave and had not been put on the market by the club.

Lotito has also had a series of legal woes, including convictions over dealings in Lazio's shares and for involvement in the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. But these are not primary issue for fans.

The main problem seems to be that most fans want the club to be in the hands of a chairman with more ambition and money to spend, especially when they see American-owned Roma challenging for the Serie A title this season. Many are nostalgic for the days of former chairman Sergio Cragnotti, whose spendthrift ways ushered in a period of unprecedented success.

During Cragnotti's reign the 'Biancocelesti' were consistently in Serie A's top five and won the 2000 league title, as well as two Italian Cups and a European Cup Winners' Cup.

But Cragnotti, who in 2011 was condemned to nine years in prison for the fraudulent bankruptcy of food group Cirio, left the club in financial ruin. The Lotito case is seen by some as an example of the sometimes excessive power fans exercise in Italian soccer.

This was also seen in November when threats from fans prompted players of the southern team of Nocerina to feign injuries to force a third-tier local derby game to be abandoned.

The unprecedented incident in the match at Salernitana led to the match being dubbed the "derby of shame" and questions were raised at the highest level - including by former premier Enrico Letta - about the power of fans to influence Italian soccer.