Gazzoni Frascara, the Architect of the Bologna Renaissance

In Covid times, it was rather a disease he had been battling against for the past few years that ultimately proved fatal for Giuseppe Gazzoni Frascara, taking away at 84 one of the most successful and beloved Presidents of Bologna. Gazzoni Frascara was at the helm of the Rossoblu for 12 years, from 1993 to 2005. In an ideal all-time table, he would be second only to the unmatchable President Renato Dall’Ara, the man who led Bologna to five Italian titles and to whom the local stadium is dedicated.

A sober and sophisticated personality, far from the excesses and extravagances of many fellow presidents of his era, Gazzoni Frascara was not properly a calcio lover – and still, he managed to pick up the pieces of a club on the verge of bankruptcy and raise them back to the heights of the Serie A, just one step away from a sensational Champions League qualification.

The long-time Bologna fans will surely remember that dramatic summer of 1993, with the club just relegated to the Serie C1 (the third division of the Italian football pyramid) but seriously at risk of even losing their rights to participate to the league. Their management had accumulated debts for what was then two billion Italian lira. As a bankruptcy procedure was initiated, Gazzoni Frascara gathered a group of local entrepreneurs and took over the club – investing a considerable eight billion lira in the process.

That was the beginning of a 12-year love story between the Rossoblu and the local entrepreneur. Gazzoni Frascara came from an aristocratic family, the grandnephew of the inventor of the famed idrolitina – a powder to turn still water into sparkling. He oversaw the family business and had already sponsored Bologna with his brand in the 1985/86 season, but eventually turned his attention to basketball.

Although boasting a calcio club that collected seven Italian titles in their history, Bologna is better known in Italy as “Basket City” due to the presence of basket powerhouses Fortitudo and Virtus – the latter was sponsored by Gazzoni Frascara with his Dietor brand. But when the football side of his hometown cried for help, he promptly answered the call.

Gazzoni Frascara’s first moves made quite some noise: He appointed future Ferrari President Luca Cordero di Montezemolo as Honorary President and former Bologna player Eraldo Pecci as Director of Sports. A young Alberto Zaccheroni was chosen to coach the team. The first campaign didn’t go as expected, however, as the Felsinei lost a promotion Playoff in a regional confrontation against SPAL and were forced to spend one more season in the third division.

Gazzoni drew his trump card the following year as he placed Renzo Ulivieri on the bench. The current President of the Italian Managers Association led Bologna to a double leap which saw them regaining a spot in the top-flight in the space of two seasons. Ulivieri went on to coach Bologna for two more years. He became a good friend of Gazzoni Frascara and remained close to him even after departing from Bologna.

As soon as the Rossoblu reached the Serie A shores, the President didn’t restrain himself from strengthening the squad. Bologna’s backbone was already solid, featuring players like former Italy U-21 and Milan goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli, no-nonsense defender Michele Paramatti, and talented midfielder Carlo Nervo – a future bandiera of the club. To these, he added Serie A veterans Igor Shalimov and Igor Kolyvanov, as well as Sweden international Kenneth Anderson from Bari.

Bologna grabbed a stunning 7th place in the table and reached the Coppa Italia Semi-Finals, only losing to cup-winner Vicenza. They did even better in the following season, when Gazzoni Frascara secured the crown jewel of his transfer market operations as he managed to sign no less than Roberto Baggio. The Divin Codino was looking for a comeback after struggling to get playing time at Milan for two seasons.

The legend goes that Ulivieri didn’t fancy the idea of having him in the roster and reacted coldly when the President phoned him to soberly announce: “I bought you Baggio.” But the ambitious Bologna looked like a perfect place to restart and Baggio surely did what he was expected to do – netting 22 goals (his Serie A all-time best) and leading the Rossoblu to qualify for the Intertoto Cup.

Baggio left Bologna the following summer, ideally passing the baton to his former Azzurri teammate Giuseppe Signori – a new stunning signing from Gazzoni Frascara. Renzo Ulivieri also left Bologna and was replaced by another almost-mythological figure in the Italian football panorama: Carlo Mazzone. With Mazzone at the helm, the Bolognesi went all the way through the Intertoto Cup and the UEFA Cup.

Such illustrious clubs as Sporting Lisboa and Olympique Lyon bent their knee to Bologna, whose dreams of European glory were eventually shattered by Olympique Marseille in a dramatic Semi-Final round. Both games ended in a tie, but in the second leg, with Bologna leading 1-0 and just four minutes to go, the Felsinei were punished by a penalty by Laurent Blanc which sent the French to the Final on away goals. Still, the 1998/99 season was probably the highest point of Gazzoni Frascara’s tenure, also embellished by a 3-0 home win against Juventus in the campionato.

A couple of lackluster seasons ensued. Then, in the 2001/02 campaign, Bologna would live another moment of glory under coach Francesco Guidolin’s tenure as they went head-to-head with Chievo, Lazio, and Milan to grab a Champions League spot which was contended until the very last match-day. The Rossoblu, however, fell victim to the “May 5th syndrome” on the same day when Inter threw a Scudetto out of the window and collapsed 0-3 at Brescia, punished by their former hero Roberto Baggio who was now living a second youth with the Rondinelle.

Gazzoni Frascara remained at the helm for three more years, eventually stepping down when his club plummeted again into the Serie B. It was a relegation that the President would never get over as it came at the end of a season where Bologna were still in the 7th place with 11 games to go, but unexpectedly fell apart and lost a relegation Playout to Parma.

On that occasion, Gazzoni put his traditional aplomb aside and was direct and vocal in denouncing the malpractice of tampering financial reports (“administrative doping” in his own words) that many clubs were allegedly recurring to – much to the detriment of his own Bologna and their crystal-clear balance sheets. He became one of the main accusers during the dark days of the Calciopoli scandal, jumping on Juventus’ grey eminence Luciano Moggi and the Italian Football Federation.

He kept fighting for a while, but was tired and disgusted by the calcio system. He fell off the football radar until new Rossoblu Chairman Joey Saputo offered him to become the Honorary President in 2014 – a title he gladly accepted, despite his public appearances were by now sporadic.

Gazzoni Frascara’s relationship with his Bologna supporters had not always been peaceful. During the days of his tenure, he was at times the target of some fierce criticism from a part of his fan base, with Gazzoni himself sarcastically noting that those people “are always on the front line when it comes to criticizing, but always on the backline when it’s about paying the entrance fee,” referring to the fact that many of his detractors indeed had VIP access to the main stands of the Renato Dall’Ara.

It probably took a few years, with Bologna scrambling to reach again the peaks hit during Gazzoni Frascara’s days, for his detractors to understand in retrospect what this reserved gentleman had done with the glorious football club from the City of the Two Towers. But they eventually realized it and, after his appointment as Honorary President, fans welcomed him back to the stadium with a self-explanatory banner.

It simply read: Presidente scusaci (“We are sorry, President”).