Operating on a financial level wholly out of kilter with the rest of the football world became standard practice for the Italian game from back in the 1930s. Huge piles of cash sloshed round the game for decades, but it was the period between 1955 and 1970 that saw the sheer economic scale of the Italian game accelerate at a huge rate with transfer fees, wages and gate receipts all growing at barely credible rates. BTLM looks at how the financial rewards for the top players and managers exploded during this era.
Player salaries at the top end of the Italian game rose by 500% over 15 years. With Juventus and Inter ready to make him the world’s first million pound player if contract negotiations faltered, Cagliari were forced to give star striker Gigi Riva,a huge new pay deal after he had inspired the club’s first and only Serie A success in 1970.
His £60,000 contract was structured in the typical manner of most Italian deals at the time. It consisted of three elements: a peppercorn monthly salary, a large signing-on fee and a fidelity, or loyalty bonus paid over the duration of the deal. Match win bonuses were a separate component. It was estimated that his contract was of similar value to Pelé’s most recent deal at Santos, although the Brazilian made much more from other commercial activities. Whilst Santos made fortunes as an endlessly touring circus with Pelé as their ringmaster, Cagliari did not have anywhere near the same glamorous appeal. Club turnover was around £400,000 in their scudetto-winning year meaning that by the time you factored in additional bonuses, around 20% of their income was going straight to their star-striker.
Let’s put these figures in some sort of contemporary and historical context: Lionel Messi is currently the world’s highest paid player earning a club salary in the region of $80 million each year. With Barcelona announcing a turnover in 2018 that exceeded a billion euros for the first time, Messi’s considerable salary represents just 7% of that total. Comparing Riva’s vast remuneration with English wages in 1970; Bobby Moore and George Best were England’s best paid players on deals worth around £25,000 per season. Peter Shilton would be the first footballer in England to earn anywhere near close to the value of Riva’s contract when he became the League’s first £1,000 per week player while at Nottingham Forest – nine full years later.
Helenio Herrera was almost single-handedly responsible for the 1000% managerial wage inflation during the period and you could probably argue that his unerring ability to outwit and out-negotiate directors was even greater than his talent for winning trophies. The time he spent in charge of Roma was no great success and yet he was being paid a salary similar to Riva’s playing contract and double the wage of any other manager in the world. Other top Italian managers were paid in the £25,000 to £40,000 range. For managers in England and most other major European footballing nations, £10,000 was considered a good salary – especially when the average working wage in the UK was just £1,500 per annum.
The most sobering, if least surprising figure in the Italian game of 1970 was the estimated indebtedness of football as a whole. After years of unsustainable spending, debt had reached a heady total of £9 million – or £130 million in today’s money. This perhaps doesn’t seem excessive when set against the astronomical debts carried in Serie A in modern times, but this was back in an age when the sport, even in Italy, was massively undercapitalised compared with now. That debt represented more than two years worth of turnover for all Serie A clubs combined.