Exclusive talk w/ AS Roma’s GM, CEO; Goal is to be “best in the world”

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It’s a good time to be among i Lupi.

AS Roma is back into the UEFA Champions League with ambitions to climb to its pinnacle, with the club’s on- and off-field affairs in order under president James Pallotta, an American.

PST had the chance to talk with AS Roma’s direttore generale, Mauro Baldissoni, as well as its CEO, Italo Zanzi, on the club’s recent tour of the United States. We chatted about the club’s aim to be the world champion, the challenges in restoring its lofty stature in Italy and the status of the American game and market.

And while Roma’s lone trip to the Cup final was 1984’s loss to Liverpool in penalty kicks and the world has watched as major money has bankrolled more European title competitors than ever before, neither Zanzi nor Baldissoni played it safe in the club’s ambitions.

“The goal is to be the best in the world,” Zanzi said.

The club is backing up its words despite a multi-year absence from European competition. Roma has spent wisely to propel Rudi Garcia’s unit forward while getting its business affairs in order.

And now Roma is among three Pot IV clubs no European giant wants to see in next year’s group stage.

“Apart from the last three seasons, Roma was consistently playing Champions League,” Baldissoni said. “We think that Roma must be a Champions League team. We’ve been successful in taking the club back to the top of the championship in Italy and we think that we’ll be able to compete at the European level.

“The US ownership group took over the club in, let’s say ‘not bright financial shape.’ We are trying to complete the turnaround while investing in new players and new talents. Due to the skill and value of the management team, we think that we’ve completed the mission to remain a Champions League team.”

Zanzi stressed the club’s acumen in spending wisely.

“We’re very fortunate but also savvy to have what we consider to be the best football management team that has demonstrated its ability to find special talent at terms that make sense,” he said.

All this from an American ownership group with Pallotta that caused some consternation in Italy. Could outsiders respectfully run this club? Zanzi admits that, as an American, they had to be extra sensitive.

“When you come into a new environment, a new country — particularly a city like Rome which is so storied — you have to be mindful to sensitivities,” Zanzi said. “What we found was definitely the most passionate fan base in the world who really just want to win. When you focus on the basics, winning on the field and off the field, it makes it easier to gain people’s confidence.

“We’re very mindful of always being respectful. We’ve never come in and said the American way is the best way or the Italian way is a bad way. On the contrary, we just want to be the best.”

And as a Roman, Baldissoni spoke of the concerns at the arrival of foreign administration.

“Actually being born and raised in Rome, a unique city with a story of thousands of years, of course there was some skepticism for the new owner coming from abroad,” Zanzi said. “It was to be expected and a natural reaction. It turned out to be a way to increase the expectations. Fortunately, we think we’ve met the expectation by now. We’re planning on doing better and better every day.”

So it brings them to America again. Roma has had a good relationship with Major League Soccer, playing the role of opposition in last year’s All-Star Game, and employed American superstar Michael Bradley for a long period of time.

In the case of the latter, Baldissoni admitted he had no thought to let Bradley leave Rome when the Toronto FC opportunity arose.

source: Getty Images“Michael was a great professional and also a wonderful football player,” he said. “We were not even planning to let him go. He wanted to be back in the United States. We were happy to keep him as a player.”

Zanzi was also sad to see him go, but it was a business move.

“Michael is a consummate professional and a player that any team or coach or ownership would want to have,” he said. “He had a very positive experience in Rome and we found a situation that worked out mutually in Toronto. Only positive things to say about Michael.”

And Zanzi also admits that the club would have no qualms taking on more Americans, but that the European rules make it very difficult. This troubles him a bit, as the success of his homeland is often on his mind.

“For me it’s very close to my heart,” he said. “The US on the whole continues to produce fantastic football players that are getting more experience sooner. It’s a shame that many teams in Europe have a limitation on the amount of non-European players that creates a challenge for American players. The ones that do come are successful, the represent their country well and they add value to their clubs.

“We look at the US as a growth market, not only from an economic perspective and a marketing perspective but also as a football one.”

With a stability in tow and a brand new stadium in the works, not to mention new partnerships with Disney and Nike, Roma is confident it can take its next steps to awakening its status as a European giant. The second-place club in Italy will lure better players to its home, threaten the existing holders and give Garcia what he needs to succeed domestically and abroad.

“Given all of the attention and hard work that we have put forward, and a very hard working style, we’re finding that players want to come to Roma now,” Zanzi said. “It’s an attractive place to be.”

Bilbao’s Williams: ‘I suffered racist insults’ at Espanyol

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Athletic Bilbao forward Inaki Williams says that he was a victim of racial abuse from fans while playing at Espanyol in a Spanish league game on Saturday.

Williams said after the 1-1 draw that “I suffered racist insults, something that no one wants to hear and has no place here.”

Williams, who is black, played 82 minutes of the match before being substituted.

“People should come to enjoy themselves, to help their team. This is a sport about friendship,” Williams said.

More AP soccer https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

FA Cup: Chelsea survive trip to Hull, advance to 5th round (video)

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With their 2-1 victory away to EFL Championship side Hull City, Chelsea joined Leicester City, Sheffield United and Norwich City as Premier League sides to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup on Saturday.

[ FA CUP ROUNDUP: West Ham bounced; Sheff Utd, Norwich advance ]

Frank Lampard‘s side got off to a flying start courtesy of Michy Batshuayi‘s deflected finish in the 6th minute, and the Blues were well on their way to a first half of total dominance.

Hull looked more prepared for a fight after halftime, but it mattered very little after Fikayo Tomori was gifted a free header two yards off the goal line. Ross Barkley‘s free kick was well placed at the back post and there was nothing that anyone could do to stop it.

[ MORE: Report: Spurs, Inter close to deal for Christian Eriksen ]

Hull pulled the game back to 2-1 in the 78th minute, and they were more than a little fortunate in how they managed to do so. Kamil Grosicki smacked a free kick with plenty of power and got the deflection of all deflections to wrong-foot Willy Caballero and find the back of the net.

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.

FA Cup roundup: West Ham bounced; Sheff Utd, Norwich advance (video)

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A roundup of all of Saturday’s FA Cup fourth-round (early) action…

[ MORE: Saints hit Spurs late to force 4th-round replay ]

The draw for the fifth round will be held on Monday at 2:20 p.m. ET, prior to kickoff of Bournemouth v. Arsenal.

West Ham United 0-1 West Bromwich Albion

West Ham were the lone Premier League side to be knocked out by a lower-division side on Saturday, as David Moyes‘ side failed to find the back of the net and were beaten 1-0 by EFL Championship leaders West Brom.

Conor Townsend scored the game’s only goal in the 9th minute, and though the Hammers controlled possession the rest of the way, they created very little in terms of scoring chances and finished the game with just three shots on target. West Brom finished the game with 10 men, but West Ham could do nothing with their 18-minute advantage following Semi Ajayi‘s second yellow card in the 72nd minute.

Millwall 0-2 Sheffield United

Sheffield United’s dream season continued with a comfortable 2-0 victory away to Championship side Millwall. Both goals came inside the final half-hour, but the Blades were unquestionably the better side even before breaking the deadlock.

That came in the 62nd minute, when Muhamed Besic placed a stunning curler inside the far post for 1-0. Not long before full-time, in the 84th, Oliver Norwood drove his effort hard and low and into the corner to make it 2-0.

Burnley 1-2 Norwich City

Norwich and Burnley were largely inseparable for the majority of Saturday’s clash at Turf Moor, save for a four-minute period early in the second half in which Norwich scored twice and booked their place in the fifth round.

Grant Hanley made it 1-0 in the 53rd and Josip Drmic added to the advantage in the 57th minute. Erik Pieters pulled Burnley back to within a goal in the 73rd, but that’s as close as the Clarets would get.

FA Cup fourth-round scoreboard

Southampton 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur — FULL RECAP
Newcastle United 0-0 Oxford United
Portsmouth 4-2 Barnsley
Coventry City 0-0 Birmingham City
Reading 1-1 Cardiff City

RB Leipzig beaten, Bundesliga title race thrown wide open

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BERLIN (AP) Eintracht Frankfurt defeated Bundesliga leader RB Leipzig 2-0 to throw the title race wide open on Saturday.

[ MORE: Report: Spurs, Inter close to deal for Christian Eriksen ]

Frankfurt defender Almamy Toure scored a brilliant goal just after the break and Filip Kostic sealed the win in injury time to deal Leipzig its first defeat since a 2-1 loss at home to Freiburg in October.

Borussia Monchengladbach cut the gap at the top to two points with a 3-1 win at home over Mainz, thanks largely to goals in each half from French striker Alassane Plea.

Bayern Munich has the chance to cut the gap to one point with a win at home over Schalke in the late game.

[ FA CUP: Saints hit Spurs late to force 4th-round replay ]

Borussia Dortmund is just four points off the top after its 5-1 win over Cologne on Friday.

Also Saturday, Union Berlin defeated Augsburg 2-0 at home, Hertha Berlin came from behind to win 2-1 at Wolfsburg, and Paderborn moved off the bottom with a 2-0 win at Freiburg.