All Stories, Club Features

Gianni Agnelli – Juventus’ Uncrowned King Of Italy

January 24, 2017

The following is a guest post, originally published in 2011, witten by Arbër Sulejmani – You can follow him here on Twitter.

Gianni Agnelli saw the inevitable. Fate decided otherwise, and he had battled with prostate cancer. Fourteen years ago today, the world lost one of its most important figures. A man with an extraordinary power that was often described in Italy with the joke: As the Pope is celebrating Mass in St.Peter’s Square, a small kid goes to ask his relatives ‘Who the man in the skull cap next to Mr. Agnelli?’

Gianni Agnelli, so called for the only reason to distinguish him from his grandfather Giovanni Agnelli, was also referred to as ‘l’avvocato” which in English means “the lawyer” or “the attorney”, because he had studied law even though he never practiced it.

We know little about his life. It is said Gianni remained a mystery even to his closest friends. He was outgoing and polite, and in a way, that was one of his strategies to keep people at a distance. He of course loved to have people around him, but even amidst them (in larger events) he was alone. Gianni as described by his friends, was never the one to ask for help with any problem, personal or business.

Gianni always refused to have bodyguards around him. He would usually say:

“They see too much, and talk too much as well”

… despite the fact that terrorists in Italy were becoming a greater force than the state itself. One captured terrorist testified that he once had had Agnelli in his sights but was incapable of getting off a shot.Apparently, l’Avvocato was too fast for him. The state itself back then was Gianni and his FIAT company. People in Italy, and mainly his employees would use the slogan, “Agnelli is Fiat, Fiat is Turin and Turin is Italy.” Agnelli had a fortune estimated at more than $2 Billion and probably much more.

L’avvocato controlled more than a quarter of Italy’s stock exchange, and a group of enterprises that employed around 360.000 workers. The other activities were newspapers and publishing, insurance companies, food companies, engineering and construction and among the many, his “Prima Amore”, Juventus Football Club. Most importantly, La Stampa and Corriere della Sera (two of Italy’s three most important newspapers) gave Agnelli “extraordinary power”.

Journalists were all amazed by Agnelli’s interviews. It was only but normal to ask Gianni about economics, fashion and clothes, something about a politician and even about football or a particular player. As a matter of fact, during his working hours at the Fiat headquarters, he thought nothing of picking up his phone and calling a sports writer to give an opnion about a football player he wanted to sign for his team, the Agnelli family’s own football team – Juventus Football Club. Basically, he knew something about everything.

Agnelli was a notorious playboy.  His white button-down shirt with the collar points undone; his wristwatch strapped outside the cuff represented an image, a look that was imitated by his admirers.  It is also not considered an exaggeration to say that to Italians, Gianni represented the “bella figura”, and was also the ideal example everyone would like to follow: intelligent, successful, rich and handsome. It was no secret that even after he was married to the Princess Marella Caracciolo di Castegneto, he continued his adventures, and he explained it:

“I really loved everything beautiful in life. Anda beautiful woman, is the most beautiful thing of all”.

He seduced and partied with the powerful. He teamed up with the powerful and lived the “good life” furiously. His love affairs were followed by the paparazzi, when all those beautiful models, singers, ex-wife’s and among them Jackie Kennedy – America’s first lady – passed through the villa of Gianni.  They would all go on and confide about their experience with Gianni, the great love which comes only once, and leaves its mark forever. On the contrary, Agnelli always kept the romance strictly private, by saying “Only servants fall in love.”  

As noted above, one of the many women Marella had to share the marriage with was Jacqueline Kennedy. Gianni Agnelli never made public his affair with Jacqueline, and such was his power that even today, the world will discuss it. He was experienced enough to stay discreet about women and none more so than the world’s leading lady. He once professed:

“There are men who talk of women and others who talk to them. I don’t talk of them, I prefer talking to them”

And when once asked about how he would justify womanizing, he said:

“One can be a very faithful and bad husband, just as one can be unfaithful and a very good husband”.

Both Gianni’s parents died in accidents, but he himself continued to challenge his life by driving on the edge. He survived a number of serious accidents, but died in his bed. He was once driving a woman in his Ferrari at more than 200kph, which unfortunately crashed. His first thought was for the girl, who fortunately escaped unharmed, and he asked that her identity be kept secret. His leg was left paralyzed, he had a fractured cheekbone and for about three months he was unable to speak. It was about a year later when he appeared to settle down.

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Gianni was a trendsetter. Nobody was living it better than l’avvocato during the era of “la dolce vita”, but he also was never able to ignore the business entirely. When the founder of Fiat, his grandfather, died in 1945, he left behind the industry in a dark period during Italian history.

Giovanni Agnelli had co-existed with facism, and after his death, Fiat was in a real danger. Gianni, who was a young man at that time, persuaded the Americans that the company should be held in private hands, and they were happy to accept that the family-owned Fiat could be a stronghold of free enterprise. Gianni’s intentions were not what everybody seemed to think. He handed its top job to Vittorio Valletta, because he was unwilling to accept such a heavy responsibility at such an early age. Gianni became a managing director in 1963 and a chairman in 1966, in which he led his company to many successful years, but some downfalls as well.

Interesting to know that when the “Clean Hands” investigation erupted in Italy, most of Italy’s corrupt personalities were swept away. Gianni on the other hand was a man of actions, and not words. There was a perception that Fiat had a special role in the country and Agnelli’s honest reputation remained untouched, something that cannot be said about other Italian businessmen and politicians.

However, as we all know, money and good looks do not bring happiness in one’s family. He was a restless man throughout his life, up until the suicide of his depressed son Edoardo in 2000, which many believe accelerated his own illness and death. Edoardo’s conversion to Islam made his father realize that his only son was not a suitable heir to the family’s wealth. Edoardo’s path in life, took him ever more distant from the management of the Fiat Company, an issue which never bothered Gianni. Juventus Football Club was the only family position in which Edoardo showed interest, he was quite a fan of football, and that’s what made him root hard for I Bianconeri during the mid 80’s. During April 20th 1986 as Juventus were making their last efforts to win against Lecce, Edoardo came on to the field and sat next to Giovanni Trapattoni for the whole match, which he later explained:

“The reason was the children’s good spirit. It is very important to cheer players on the bench and watch their game as closely as possible.”

His daughter, Margherita Agnelli de Pahlen, was and still is a problem to Agnelli family, following the death of Gianni. In 2003 she asked for a full accounting of her dad’s wealth. She claims she never got it, and when his son Lapo Elkan became the heir of the Fiat Company, matters got even worse. She rocked the family empire with a lawsuit against her father’s longtime consiglieri, attacking the very people who helped her father collect the wealth which she proceeded to inherit a great part of.

Questions arose as to why doesn’t someone hadn’t shown Margherita the complete list of assets in an effort to resolve the matter –  Just as the question, the answer itself is also very simple: because so far nobody admits to knowing the full extent of everything Gianni Agnelli actually owned. This de facto means that it will most likely take a considerable amount of time for Margherita’s lawsuit to reach a conclusion. Today, she is living in Geneva, Switzerland, and has set her powerful family against her.

Gianni Agnelli was closely connected with Juventus, the most renowned Italian football club. He was not only a direct owner but a fan with the strictest meaning of the word. The Agnelli family have been part of Juventus since 1923, while Gianni himself ran the club from 1947 until 1954. At this time, the most important players were the Danes John Hansen and Karl Aage Praest, Carlo Parola and above all Giampiero Boniperti. However, because of his busy life and the illness that destroyed him slowly, Agnelli had to resign but there was no doubt that his word was considered final on many major decisions such as the signings of big money players. It was Agnelli who decided that Juventus should buy the three times Golden Ball winner Michel Platini in 1982. Gianni nicknamed our beloved Alessandro Del Piero “Il Pinturicchio”, which nowadays still lives in our dictionary.

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He was in fact the leader behind Italy’s greatest sporting institutions such as the Ferrari formula one team. Such was his success that when he died, he left his company in some trouble, but not Juventus, who were the champions of Italy. Gianni would often land with his helicopter at the training grounds and chat with his players, and each visit would surely become a front page story in the press the next day.

Gianni was more than a President. He was always informed about his players, and he would always bring Juventus to his “home” in Villar Perosa to play some a friendly match. He enjoyed a special relationship with the current Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero, and the phone calls every morning at 6am to the club’s President Giampiero Boniperti became legendary.

Agnelli remained one of the most important figures for journalists, especially as his comments that were always admired by the press. He once said:

“I feel emotional every time I see the letter J in a newspaper headline. I immediately think of Juventus

Along with one of my personal favorites:

“Juventus is, for those who love Juventus, a passion, an entertainment … and something on Sunday. We have tried to give them the best show possible and also a lot of satisfaction.”

This was his image and the legacy he left behind in the hearts of Bianconeri, forever. He loved Juventus for what it really was and he never missed watching his own club play. During the worst times of life, when legs had lost senses and he couldn’t go to the stadium, he used to watch the team on TV at home. He could barely see, his eyesight was all but lost. Marella (his wife) explained how he never admitted any discomfort and how he never told her he couldn’t see the players on the TV,  his pleasure was achieved by listening to the sound of the commentator. He never confessed to his wife about his blindness. Such was Gianni, that he didn’t want to discourage her hopes.

All in all, his involvement was decisive in making Juventus one of the greatest football institutions in the world, and under the guidance of the Agnelli’s, the thirty-four times champions of Italy, have become just that. Much has been said about Gianni, the Italian icon, and the myth of Juventus Football Club, who are even today proud to talk of “Lo Stile Juve” and the Juventinitá – Just some of those precious blessings Gianni gave us. For those who were around him, he left an empty space that will never be filled again, and for those, like me, who wished they knew him – would do anything to trade places with those whose lives he touched.

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