In central Italy, perched on a hill overlooking the River Tiber, sits the beautiful city of Perugia. The capital of the Umbrian region is a maze of cobbled alleys, picturesque piazzas and stunning palazzi. Known as a university town, students provide a bustling vibrancy to its’ medieval streets.
The city is also home to Perugia Calcio, and, in 1991, entrepreneur Luciano Gaucci arrived to take over as president of the club and ignite an era that consisted of financial scandals, controversial signings, and allegations of bribery involving the trade of a horse. Perugia were a provincial club that had finished runners-up in a heroic fight for the Scudetto in 1979, and with the arrival of Gaucci, they were once again to enter the limelight in Serie A due to a string of bizarre incidents during his tenure at the club.
From Silvio Berlusconi to Luciano Moggi, calcio is no stranger to eccentric club owners with questionable business dealings, of course. Part of the fascination of Italian football lies in the bedlam that occurs off the pitch in addition to the beautiful football that is played out in the country’s iconic, albeit often crumbling, stadiums.
Born in Rome, Gaucci began adult life as a bus driver before deciding that cruising the streets of the Italian capital would not satisfy his long-term ambitions, and he soon left the ATAC to form his own cleaning company. Milanese, the company name he conjured up so as to not deter business from northern Italy, proved to be a lucrative enterprise for the Roman, with the fruits of his labour enabling him to embrace a new-found business interest in his life – thoroughbred horses.
Gaucci formed a horse breeding and racing stable and would soon purchase the Irish thoroughbred Tony Bin, a horse that would go on to win numerous races including the prestigious French event of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Other horses such as Sikeston and Dr Devious bought further success to the Italian businessman but it was Tony Bin that would transform Gaucci from a wealthy man into one who could afford to splurge on a football club.
The Irish stallion had developed a stellar reputation for his various successes in the racing world and would catch the attention of a Japanese businessman who made an offer of $4m that Gaucci was unable to refuse. Gaucci’s business acumen and passion for horses had seen him acquire a personal fortune that would not only transform his life but later cause major repercussions for Associazione Calcistica Perugia.
When Gaucci took over the club, they were in Serie C and had endured turbulent times as they became embroiled in several match-fixing scandals that had seen them tumble down the divisions. After reaching Serie A for the first time in 1975, the club were relegated five years later due to their involvement in the Totonero scandal that landed them with the punishment of a five-point deduction.
If the club had learned from their mistakes, however, they had a peculiar way of showing it. They were to face further sanctions in 1986 after being found guilty once again of the same skullduggery; their punishment on this occasion was to see them relegated to Serie C2.
The new president, though, was not a man suited to the quiet proceedings of the Italian fourth tier. Gaucci was a brash, successful businessman who had seen his enterprises flourish by holding high ambitions – and wanted the same for his new venture. The Roman had a desire to be in the limelight, forming friendships with prominent people of Italian society such as former Italian prime minister and rumoured mafia associate, Giulio Andreotti.
Gaucci vowed to take Perugia back to the top flight of Italian football where they could draw battle with the European giants of Milan and Turin – and his plans were fully in motion by 1993 as Perugia faced off against Acireale in a playoff which saw them claim victory to secure a place back in Serie B.
However, the supporters of Perugia, who had experienced their fair share of heartbreak in recent years, were to see their joy short-lived once again. The horses that had helped bring Gaucci his fortune were now set to bring him crashing down and, in the process, he would take Perugia with him.
Gaucci had struck a deal with one Emanuel Senzacqua for the sale of one of his horses, and it was a transaction that would have devastating ramifications for the football club. As John Foot recalls in his seminal book on Italian football, Calcio, Senquenza was not only a horse enthusiast but a Serie C referee too. He was also a referee who was scheduled to officiate a fixture between Perugia and Siracusa just three days after he had met Gaucci to seal the deal for the stallion.
The 1-1 draw between the sides produced several questionable refereeing decisions in favour of Perugia, and furious Siracusa supporters quickly suspected there could be a link between the referee’s performance and the horse that Gaucci had handed him.
Soon after, the Italian FA announced that an inquiry was to be made into the events that had occurred in Siracusa. Gaucci faced the accusation of using the horse deal as a way of tempting Senzacqua into providing officiating in favour of Perugia, and when the referee was interrogated, his explanations were found to be very inconsistent.
Cancellation of Perugia’s promotion was imminent, and when news began to filter through to the fans who had made the trip to Foggia for the playoff final, violence erupted on Perugia’s medieval streets. Irate fans, outraged at the revocation, made their feelings known as they proceeded to launch missiles at the police who had been called in to control proceedings.
Perugia were denied promotion through the association that Gaucci and Senzacqua had formed, but while many predicted that the scandal would represent the beginning of the end for Perugia’s president, the club would go on to scale new heights.
Finally, after 16 years away from the top flight, Perugia returned to Serie A in 1996 under the management of Giovanni Galeone as Marco Negri fired in the goals that led them to promotion. Galeone was already the sixth manager of the 15 that would serve under Gaucci and was subsequently fired shortly after as they were relegated the following season.
This further setback wasn’t to deter Gaucci and his ambitions for the club, though, and the late-90s proved to be an exciting period for Perugia, acquiring famous names and playing some swashbuckling football. Future Italy internationals such as Gennaro Gattuso, Marco Materazzi and Fabio Grosso would all enjoy successful spells at the club, while Gaucci also began to look further afield for talent via a library of over one thousand cassette tapes. This methodical research resulted in the unknown Hidetoshi Nakata arriving from Japan, whose subsequent form led to a lucrative transfer to Roma.
Perugia’s yo-yoing between the divisions would continue as they again gained promotion to the top flight in 1998, where they would, finally, stay for a substantial amount of time, enjoying one of the most successful periods in their 114-year history. Serse Cosmi was the coach that Gaucci hired in 2000 and he brought with him an excitable touchline presence and some unorthodox team bonding methods.
Cosmi was a part-time DJ who was known to screen erotic movies for his players the night before games and organised trips to strip clubs, believing that his methods would keep up the morale of the squad. The coach had proved himself a successful acquisition for Gaucci; it was also the period in which they won the 2003 Intertoto Cup.
The early years of the millennium also represented an era where Gaucci’s eccentricities were to attract the attention of a wider audience. The entrepreneur took a progressive step for the game when he became the first owner to hire the first ever female manager for a male team as Carolina Morace took charge of Gaucci’s lower league club, Viterbese.
The portly owner then attempted to bring the female and male game even further together by revealing his insistence on signing a female player to play for Perugia. World Cup winner Birgit Prinz was the player Gaucci had identified, stating: “She is very beautiful and has a great figure, I can assure you that. As a player, she’s very good.”
While the signing never materialised, the speculation had brought Perugia the attention that Gaucci had craved, and soon after, another signing would ensure the startled eyes of the footballing world would be firmly drawn to events in Umbria.
In 2003 the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Saadi-Al, landed in the countryside of central Italy to sign for the club. Gaucci was said to have been encouraged to sign the Libyan by Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi as a way of improving relations between Italy and Libya. The playing career of Gaddafi, who already had ties in Italian football by owning a stake in Juventus, never took off on the pitch, however, as he failed a drugs test for the legal substance of Nandrolone just three months into his Serie A adventure.
Upon completing a three-month ban from the game, Gaddafi finally got his opportunity to shine, appearing for 15 minutes as a substitute in a 1-0 victory over Juventus. Despite hiring Diego Maradona as a technical consultant and disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson as a personal trainer, Gaddafi was clearly not of sufficient quality to star in Italy’s top tier. Cosmi repeatedly found excuses not to include the Libya captain and one writer in La Repubblica noted his lack of pace, writing: “Even at twice his current speed he would still be twice as slow as slow itself.”
Gaddafi would depart the club after just one season, and Perugia supporters weren’t the only ones in Umbria glad to see the back of the Libyan. The hotel that Gaddafi and his entourage occupied were again able to serve their other guests cappuccinos now that Gaddafi’s wife was no longer using the hotel’s milk for her daily bath.
A year before the Gaddafi signing, Gaucci had shot to prominence on the European football scene after creating headlines in the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup. South Korea had eliminated Italy at the second round stage courtesy of a golden goal from Perugia’s Ahn Jung-hwan. If the Korean was expecting a congratulatory message from his owner, however, he was to be sorely disappointed.
Gaucci took the Azzurri’s early exit from the tournament badly, vowing to cease the payment of wages to his Asian star. The patriotic Gaucci stated: “I have no intention of paying a salary to someone who has ruined Italian football. That man will not return to our team. I am outraged. He started playing phenomenally only when it came to playing Italy. I am a nationalist and his behaviour is not only an incomprehensible wound to my pride but also an offence to a country which two years ago had openly welcomed him.”
The Intertoto Cup triumph had bought European football to the Stadio Renato Curi as they qualified for the UEFA Cup and progressed to the third round, but sadly for Gaucci, this had proven to be the high point of his time in charge of the club.
In 2005 Perugia went bankrupt and were subsequently relegated back down to Serie C with a warrant for Gaucci’s arrest on fraud charges being issued as a result of the financial irregularities. In order to elude the Italian authorities, Gaucci jumped on a flight to Santo Domingo where he would remain for four years, while his sons were jailed in his absence for the events that had taken place in Umbria.
Gaucci’s exile spelt the end of his time in Italian football, but he would return to the country in 2009 having been handed a three-year suspended jail sentence in his absence. During his time at the helm of Perugia, Gaucci hired and fired 15 managers, dined with George Bush at the White House, and was a constant thorn in the side of the football authorities.
Il Presidente had brought an era of excitement and relative success to the club and had shown himself to be a shrewd operator in terms of scouting players and coaches. But it is the controversies, publicity stunts and chaos that Luciano Gaucci inflicted upon Italian football that most will remember him for.
By Aaron Attwood @ajattwood