Como CEO Michael Gandler explains exclusively to Football Italia just how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit, especially after losing a member of staff.

Words: Alasdair Mackenzie

Como CEO Michael Gandler explains exclusively to Football Italia just how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit, especially after losing a member of staff.

Words: Alasdair Mackenzie

As footballers across Italy return to training this week, they are still no closer to knowing if the season will restart. After almost two months of nationwide lockdown, restrictions have begun to lift as the country enters ‘Phase Two’ of the coronavirus pandemic response. But with no agreement in place over a safe team training protocol, Italian football could still go the way of France and call off the season as it stands.

While the media focus has been mostly on Serie A and the financial implications of a potential season abandonment, the lower leagues are also awaiting clarification.

Como are one of 60 Serie C clubs waiting to find out if they will be expected to take the field again. Based in Lombardy, one of the world’s worst-hit regions by the COVID-19 outbreak, the club have suffered more than most.

They tragically lost Giorgio Bressani, secretary of the youth team and historical general secretary, to the disease on 14 April. He was 72 years old and had worked for the club for 20 years.

This week, Como had their first case among the playing staff when goalkeeper Pierre Bolchini tested positive. Luckily, he is asymptomatic and has been in lockdown since March.

The famous lakeside town has felt the devastation of outbreak first-hand and for club CEO Michael Gandler, there is no doubt that the right thing to do would be to stop lower league action immediately.

“We’re in the hardest hit area,” he explained exclusively to Football Italia.

“Prior to New York I think this was the hardest hit area in the world. It’s a massive risk for us. I think players for the most part are very low risk, given the fact that – I hope – they don’t smoke, they’re young, healthy, in shape, so they’re less likely to feel the effects of coronavirus.

“That said, there’s nobody, at least from what I’m reading, who is immune. I think from a safety standpoint it’s a low risk situation if you can maintain as close to a perfect quarantine as possible, but for our division, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.

“Not to say lives matter less in higher divisions, but there’s certainly a lot less at stake here and I don’t think it’s worth endangering people.”

Gandler arrived at the club in April 2019 after its takeover by SENT Entertainment, bankrolled by Indonesian billionaires the Hartono family.

The American, who formerly worked at Inter as Chief Revenue Officer between 2015 and 2018, oversaw immediate on-field success as Como were promoted from Serie D in 2018-19.

They were set for a season of consolidation in March, sitting in the comfort of 12th place when football ground to a halt. Gandler is therefore able to comment on the thorny issue of what to do about promotion and relegation in the case of an early end date without instant accusations of self-interest.

"We think the third division should be cancelled this year,” he said.

“We respect the positions of the top teams, in terms of having them promoted, but Serie B has to accept them before we can promote them.”

Serie C is divided into three regionalised groups, with Como competing in the ‘A’ division currently dominated by Silvio Berlusconi’s Monza, who were 16 points clear on top before the suspension.

The three group winners are usually promoted along with a play-off victor, while the three bottom sides are sent down with three playout losers. There is also a mini-league between the three group winners to determine a champion at the end of the season.

“I don’t think you can crown a champion,” Gandler said. “There is no champion, because the top teams would have to play each other. But I do believe that they should be promoted, because they’ve earned the promotion. Particularly in the case of Monza in our group, because they’re light-years ahead of everybody.”

“The harder conversation is the relegation conversation. You have teams that say ‘yes, I’m in a relegation position but I’m really just two victories away from not being relegated’.

“At that point it’s a tough call so I do believe that, as in most instances, there needs to be some give on both sides. Maybe relegating fewer teams, perhaps a small expansion on the sizes of the league for at least a year, just to create some balance.

“It’s a difficult question, because to have 22 teams in Serie A is not an easy thing to consider, as you’re further diluting in terms of the TV money and other benefits.”

With clubs losing out on revenue from gate receipts and sponsorship deals, the financial outlook is bleak. Como are in the fortunate position of having backers Gandler described as “one of the wealthiest ownership groups in sport”, and therefore aren’t facing economic doom, but the CEO said that the grim off-field situation has led to widespread support of a cancellation from Serie C clubs.

"The vast majority want to end the season, everybody for different reasons,” he said.

“For the most part you’re talking about an average club losing 25% of its sponsorship, not making its money off the youth minutes played (third-tier teams are financially rewarded for each minute played by an Under-20 player), and not selling tickets.

“So even if the personal businesses that sustain the club were going well, the club itself would be suffering greatly.

“You’ve got none of the income you regularly have, because we don’t have TV rights, so there’s no large fees there.

“All clubs are losing money; I don’t think there’s anybody that’s profitable at this point. So they are all in favour of shutting down the season, simply to stop incurring player costs.”

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