Roma Goes Moneyball as Owners Tap Nedved Mentor in Overhaul

Zdenek Zeman, who’s made tenfold returns by unearthing undervalued soccer players, is scouting for talent again as AS Roma’s U.S. owners ask the veteran Czech coach to clean house in their second season at the Italian team.

Boston-based Thomas DiBenedetto and hedge-fund manager James Pallotta, who bought the world’s 17th-richest club last August, are paying down debt and trimming Roma’s 80 million-euro ($98 million) payroll to set it on an even keel after years of overspending. They’re counting on Zeman’s eye for a bargain as they swap pricey players for promising youngsters and build a global brand to challenge giants such as Barcelona.

While he’s never won a major trophy, the chain-smoking Czech, who’s begun his second stint at Roma with a U.S. tour that included a 4-0 win over Polish team Zaglebie Lubin in an exhibition match in Chicago yesterday, has made a career of turning unheralded players such as Pavel Nedved into stars. His approach echoes “Moneyball,” the system Oakland Athletics baseball executive Billy Beane pioneered to pick players based on statistics and unsung attributes.

“The heritage from the past was quite tough,” Franco Baldini, Roma’s general manager, said in an interview this month at a training camp in the Alps. “We need to come back from the past where every season was run in debt. That’s why we brought in Zeman because he’s famous as a manager that can improve the quality of players, especially young players.”

Tight Budget

Zeman, 65, who fled to Italy after Warsaw Pact troops invaded his native Prague in 1968, made a name for himself in 1991 by leading Foggia, which had spent most of the previous three decades in the lower divisions, into Italy’s top flight. While regularly selling its best players, he kept the club in Serie A for three seasons by using a style that focused on attack, as recounted in the 2009 documentary “Zemanlandia.”

Among Zeman’s signings at Foggia were Giuseppe Signori, Francesco Baiano, Roberto Rambaudi and Luigi Di Biagio, who were sold on for as much as 10 times their original cost, according to reports in newspapers such as Gazzetta dello Sport. All went to top Serie A clubs and played for Italy’s national team.

While statistics play a far lesser role in soccer than they do in baseball, Zeman has long prized certain attributes other coaches may overlook for his hard-running 4-3-3 formation of four defenders, three midfielders and three attackers, as opposed to the one or two forwards deployed by many European teams. They include work rate, dedication, stamina and speed of thought. Beane hasn’t won baseball’s World Series using his methodology as an executive.

Nedved Deal

Zeman went on to coach Lazio, where he bought midfielder Nedved in 1996 for 8 billion lire, about $4 million at the time, according to Gazzetta. The coach had first seen the Bohemian in a friendly in Prague that year, months before he grabbed the world’s attention by leading the Czechs to the final of the European Championships. Later sold to Juventus for 70 billion lire, Nedved was voted Europe’s best player in 2003.

Just as a World Series title has eluded Beane as an executive, Zeman’s best results as a manager were second- and third-place finishes at Lazio before a two-year spell at Roma, which he led to fourth in 1998 before being dismissed after accusing Juventus players of doping. In 2008, he was fired after losing his first five matches at Red Star Belgrade, leaving the team at the bottom of Serbia’s first division for the first time in 24 years.

Fenway Match

Roma’s owners, who have stakes in baseball’s Boston Red Sox and the Celtics basketball franchise as well as Liverpool FC, have tasked Zeman with finding young talent as they jettison more expensive players to shave 20 percent, or 16 million euros, off the wage bill. Roma is scheduled to take on Liverpool in a friendly game on July 25 at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox.

“Every player has his own characteristics,” Zeman said last week in an interview at Roma’s training camp in Riscone in the Italian Dolomites. “The problem is it’s a team game and you have to find the right balance, the right players to complement each other.”

Roma has raised $39 million since last summer by selling stars Mirko Vucinic of Montenegro, France’s Jeremy Menez, Norway’s John Arne Riise and Italy’s Fabio Borini, according to stock-market filings. They also plan to save about 38 million euros by offloading six of their oldest and best-paid players including striker Marco Borriello, Chilean playmaker David Pizarro and Brazilian defender Juan.

The American owners sanctioned 44 million euros for new players last season, many in their early 20s, including Barcelona’s Bojan Krkic and River Plate’s Erik Lamela, who each cost 12 million euros.

‘Can’t Afford’

This season, purchases include two Brazilians: Jonatan Lucca, who cost 700,000 euros from Internacional, and Marquinho, acquired for 3.5 million euros from Fluminense, according to stock-market filings. U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley joined from Chievo Verona for 3.75 million euros.

Roma’s captain Totti, 35, who’s spent his entire career at the club, isn’t convinced by the new approach.

“We can’t afford yet another transition year,” he told reporters in Riscone this month. The club, which finished seventh last season, missing out on a place in Europe’s elite Champions League competition, won’t win a trophy without signing a star, he said.

Big-name players such as Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo are also key to boosting popularity abroad, according to Marcel Vulpis, a Rome-based sports-business analyst. The ‘Moneyball’ strategy may not work, he said.

Debt, Delisting

Roma’s U.S. owners, who together with co-investor UniCredit SpA control 78 percent of the three-time Serie A champion, are looking beyond the wage bill as they seek to enhance the club’s value, which Forbes in April put at $354 million. Since their 60 million-euro takeover, the club has paid off 40 million euros of debt, approved a 50 million-euro capital increase and may be delisted from the Milan Stock Exchange next year.

To boost revenue above last year’s 110 million euros, the club is improving marketing, merchandising and ticket sales under Chief Executive Officer Mark Pannes, a former executive at the New York Knicks basketball franchise. It also plans to build its own arena by 2016, ending a rental pact under which it shares Rome’s Olympic Stadium with Lazio. That initiative alone could add 30 percent in extra revenue, Commercial Director Christoph Winterling said.

‘Zeman Effect’

The new coach is already bolstering Roma’s commercial endeavors, according to Winterling, who credits sales of 20,000 season tickets a month before the new season, up from 18,500 all last season, to the “Zeman effect.” Jersey sales among a million fans in Rome and another 87 million worldwide are up 20 percent, while merchandise licensing is up 30 percent, he said.

While Zeman’s teams often lack the defensive bite needed to win titles, their high-scoring antics almost guarantee Roma’s supporters will be entertained as the club seeks its first Italian championship since 2001.

Zeman says his 4-3-3 formation is more direct than that of Spain or Barcelona, where his predecessor Luis Enrique coached the reserves before joining Roma, because he’s “much less patient.”

The Czech says he has no plans to change his style after leading Pescara to the second-division title last season when the team scored a record 90 goals.

“If you win 4-1, then you’ve done well playing that way,” said Zeman, whose uncle Cestmir Vycpalek coached Juventus to two Italian titles in the 1970s. “You must continue down that path as there’s no need to change.”

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