Udinese Calcio are currently languishing neat the wrong end of Italy’s Serie A table, in 17th place and just two points above the relegation zone. Recent years have seen a steady decline from a club that just a few years ago was flirting with European football.
The club is owned by the Pozzo family, headed by Giampaoli Pozzo, an Italian businessman who aims to create a network of intertwining clubs across the continent to work together to achieve success. At least, that was the proposition at first.
For Udinese, this partnership, currently with Watford and formerly with Granada, has seen the Italian side seemingly left to the wayside, whilst the lucrative Premier League side Watford has garnered far more of the Pozzo family’s attention.
The Udine native purchased Udinese Calcio back in 1986, and the club has since endured a turbulent time under his tenure. The Pozzo administration began with the Totonero betting scandal, in which the Zebrette were handed a nine-point reduction, relegating them to Serie B. They would soon recover and ascend to the top division, but soon, Pozzo began to earn a murky reputation with backroom deals. In 1990, a phone call between Pozzo and the Lazio president was alleged to be evidence of match-fixing, and Pozzo was banned from holding authority at the club, while remaining as owner. Soon, Udinese developed an extensive scouting network that would rival the best in Europe, and began to qualify for European competitions. As the turn of the millennium approached, stability and fortunes began to creep into the club.
Just as recently as 2007, the Bianconeri Friuliani were in the Champions League, and they reached the UEFA Cup quarter finals in the 2008/09 season. Udinese were at their peak, with players such as Alexis Sánchez, Mauricio Isla, Fabio Quaglierella and club legend Antonio Di Natale on their books. But little did they know that a decision by the owners that very season was the first step on a downward spiral for the club.
On June 30, 2009, Granada Club de Fútbol looked headed for liquidation. The Andalusian club was saddled with €12 million in debt, and after negotiating with investors, local officials announced that the first to invest €1.5 million in the club would gain control of the club, as well as its debt. One day later, the Pozzo family bought Granada as a partnership agreement. The Nazaríes would develop loanees and youth players from Udinese, and by the end of the season, Granada won promotion to the second division for the first time in 22 years. The following season, they ascended to Spain’s top flight for the first time in 35 years.
Investment was not overly abundant into the Spanish side, but instead, focus was split. The Pozzo family now had football interests other than Udinese, and the star players soon left. Quagliarella left to join Napoli in 2009, Alexis left to join Barcelona in 2011, and Mauricio Isla soon followed, leaving for Juventus in 2012.
Giampaoli Pozzo made another decision in 2012: to buy Watford FC, then in the Championship, and install Gianfranco Zola at the helm. Watford then used the link between themselves and Udinese to draft in numerous loans from both Granada and Udinese. Jean-Alain Fanchone, Neuton Piccoli and Lars Ekstrand, as well as midfielder Cristian Battocchio and striker Fernando Forestieri all joined Watford from Udinese whilst Daniel Pudil joined the club from Granada.
The focus clearly shifted towards Watford. With future stars like Allan and Mehdi Benatia leading the way, the 2012/13 season saw Udinese finish in 5th, but unbeknownst to them, the wheels were trembling, close to coming off completely.
The key moment in the fall of Udinese came in 2015, as Watford won promotion to the Premier League in 2014/15 and Premier League money came trickling into the Pozzo family’s pockets. Giampaoli handed over the reigns to his son Gino to mastermind the progress of Watford and maximise the Hornets’ potential.
Since promotion for their English partners, Udinese have 17th, 13th and 14th in Serie A, with a maximum tally of 45 points. The likes of Roberto Pereyra and Piotr Zieliński have come and gone, while Pozzo has tightened the pursestrings, spending the bare minimum to keep Udinese in the top flight. They have been cast to the side for a more profitable organisation, as the Pozzo family have invested a net spend of roughly £120m on transfer fees alone for Watford since the 2014/15 season.
In the same time period, Udinese have a net spend of -£56m and a further £35m worth of sales have already been agreed for the end of the season, with Alex Meret and Orestis Karnezis set to join Napoli permanently and with Jakub Jankto landing a permanent deal with Sampdoria.
There have been a number of contributing factors to the decline of Udinese in recent years. The loss of Di Natale left a gap that could not be filled: a leader, an icon and quality on and off the pitch. A player of his stature is irreplaceable for a club like Udinese.
But money talks, and despite giving Udinese fans some fantastic seasons during their tenure, the Pozzo focus has shifted, as the lure of Premier League money has been too much for them to rest. It doesn’t even matter that Granada has since been bought out by a Chinese businessman. A harsh reality of globalization and the modern era; Udinese and its fans have been cast to the sidelines, condemned to watch a former perennial challenger fight relegation, while Watford continues to enjoy center stage.
By: Conor Dunford