Sampdoria’s Age of the Viper: The Nine Years of the Ferrero Presidency

With the purchase of Sampdoria by the Gestio Capital/Aser Ventures group led by Leeds United owner Andrea Radrizzani, the curtains fell on the age of Massimo Ferrero, aka Viperetta (“Little Viper”) at the helm of the Blucerchiati.

The glorious Genoa club, who won a Serie A title in 1990/91, will play next season in Serie B after suffering their first relegation in 12 years. But, at least, they will play somewhere in professional football after the tumultuous age of Ferrero risked ending with Sampdoria going bankrupt and having to restart from the amateurish Serie D (a path that some other clubs like Chievo were recently forced to undertake)

And so, as the club prepares to restart with a clean slate, it’s time to take stocks of the bizarre nine-year presidency of Massimo Ferrero, who triumphally announced himself in 2014 as the man who would take the club back to its early 1990s heights but left them on the verge of despair. The start, it needs to be said, was a promising one. But, as a few lackluster seasons went by, Sampdoria started to accumulate debts over debts as their owner’s finance and reputation were marred by several fraudulent bankruptcy charges, before spiraling down into this season’s disastrous relegation.

Ferrero is one-of-a-kind man. Speaking of what you would commonly refer to as a “larger than life” character, there is just no way to convey how much larger than life he actually is if you never had the chance to witness – and, sometimes, make sense of – any of his speeches delivered in a thick Roman accent.

There was an age when characters like Ferrero were the norm in Serie A. The landscape of calcio club presidents between the 1970s and 1990s was an assorted bunch of outspoken, flamboyant, at times dictatorial family-business owners who made headlines with their quirky antics more often than the clubs their chaired.

Now, in times when the Serie A clubs have attracted uptight investors from China, the US, the Gulf countries, Ferrero looked like the last man standing from a forgotten age. Like he somehow managed to sneak past security and crash an exclusive party with his spirited eyes, explicit language, messy white hair, and perpetual “I-don’t-give-a-s***t” attitude. If you were to cast somebody for the part of a mad professor in a movie, he would be the man to go.

Which is especially appropriate in the case of Massimo Ferrero, who started his career in the movie industry as an extra before making his way to becoming a powerful producer and one of the biggest owners of movie theaters in Italy. That’s were his fortune comes from, the one that allowed him to eventually acquire Sampdoria even though he has been a hardcore Roma fan since his youth.

Ferrero bought the Blucerchiati in 2014 from Edoardo Garrone. “He didn’t give it to me for free,” the Viperetta once claimed, “I had to repay 25 million of debts, then put some 15 more for capital increase,” as relayed by Corriere della Sera correspondent Fabrizio Roncone in his account of an epic dinner where Ferrero hosted a horde of journalists and football agents that must have been an absolute blast to join.

True, Sampdoria were not faring well under Garrone, even though – as several reports, including one from La Gazzetta dello Sport, indicated – the former president seemed to have injected some cash to repay the club’s debts well after his sale to Ferrero. Be that as it may, but, effective June 12, 2014, Sampdoria belonged to Massimo Ferrero.

Ferrero’s initial proclaims were triumphant. The Viperetta drew from his movie industry background to challenge no less than his “colleague” Aurelio De Laurentiis from Napoli. “Aurelio, I’ll wait for you on the pitch and I will beat you 3-1!,” he announced. For the record, no match between Sampdoria and Napoli would end by such scoreline in the following nine years…

Indeed, the start was good. Under Sinisa Mihajlovic’s guidance, the Blucerchiati ended their first season in the Little Viper’s age (2014/15) with a 7th spot in the Serie A table and a ticket to the Europa League preliminaries. Not bad for a club that only three years earlier was fumbling in Serie B.

But, when Mihajlovic left Genova to coach Milan, the new management’s choice for the bench was Walter Zenga – one who frankly had had a much better record as a player than as a manager. Sampdoria’s following season started with a disastrous 0-4 home defeat to Serb outfit Vojvodina that forced them to bid farewell to their European dreams. That was the last time the Doria walked the European stage to date.

Zenga lasted only 12 league games, and it was then up to former player Vincenzo Montella to wrap the Doria’s campaign with a respectable 15th place, narrowly escaping relegation.

After those stormy times, Sampdoria enjoyed three quiet seasons under Marco Giampaolo’s tenure. Those were the best years in the Ferrero reign. The club comfortably fared at mid-table. Giampaolo looked like the next big thing coming from the Italian coaching school. Through some shrewd transfer market operations, Samp managed to get significant capital gains as the likes of Milan Skriniar, Patrick Schick, Lucas Torreira, Luis Muriel, all joined high-profile clubs after blossoming out at Sampdoria.

Plus, the Blucerchiati also benefited from the unexpected contribution by a now 40-year-old youngster named Fabio Quagliarella, who joined the Corte Lambruschini-based club in 2016 to live a surprisingly prolific golden age, even becoming the oldest ever Serie A top goal-scorer in 2019.

Ferrero was ecstatic. During his heyday, “Little Viper” had become a cult figure in Italy as his flamboyant personality and antics could not go unnoticed. He would be seen at the Marassi stadium wearing a Blucerchiati scarf in any possible way. He even became the object of an imitation from a famous Italian comedian.

Cynical, arrogant, he was the epitome of the Roman “cazzaro”, some sort of a modern-day folk hero with a bag of tall tales always at hand, the most famous of which was his alleged meeting with Fidel Castro in which Viperetta presumedly shook his hand so hard that the Lidér Maximo angrily commanded him to let it go. During the legendary dinner we mentioned earlier, at one point he boasted: “I never go out with less that 5k in cash on me, and I’m not bulls***ting you: here you go!”, producing some rolls of bills.

But then, things started to deteriorate, both on and off the pitch. Giampaolo left, also to join Milan. Ferrero’s choice to put Eusebio Di Francesco in charge proved an ill one as the former Roma gaffer only lasted a couple months. Di Francesco resigned after seven league games, with the club bottom-ranked in the Serie A table.

Sampdoria’s costs started to skyrocket and, at the end of the 2019/20 season, the club was recording losses again. Claudio Ranieri was called at Sampdoria’s deathbed and managed to escape relegation, but the relationship between Viperetta and the Doria fans had almost reached a breaking point, also because the movie producer was believed guilty of refusing to sell the club to a US group of investors backed by Blucerchiati legend Gianluca Vialli (likely the one and only president that the fan base would have ever liked to see…).

Ranieri remained in charge during the COVID-maimed season, where he steered the club towards a commendable 9th place but jumped off the boat at the end of the campaign over disagreements with the management. The boat was sinking. Sampdoria were one of the teams most affected by the pandemic and had to resort to multiple loans to keep the business going.

Roberto D’Aversa was the new coach ahead of the 2021/22 season. It would turn out to be another lost bet. But before the former Parma coach would be given the ax, things got even worse off the pitch as Ferrero’s personal situation plummeted down. On December 6, 2021, Viperetta was arrested on grounds of multiple fraudulent bankruptcy charges. He spent 17 days in jail, before being put on house arrest. The trial is still ongoing.

The accusations had nothing to do with the management of Sampdoria and were rather related to the presumed bankruptcies of multiple companies in the hospitality and movie industry that could be traced back to him. Ferrero formally resigned from President, even though he maintained the ownership of the club. The Sampdoria board elected Marco Lanna as the new President. He was a Blucerchiati player during the days of the Scudetto and had the merit of keeping the boat steady during such uncertain times.

Predicting tough times ahead, the board had already put Sampdoria in a trust, with the goal of keeping the club separated from its owner’s turbulent financial situation and in view of a much-needed sale to a new proprietor. But it would take one more year and a half before Sampdoria could finally see the light at the of the tunnel.

Before that, they had to go through another narrow escape from relegation, courtesy of Marco Giampaolo’s return, and the disastrous, present season, which ended with the club’s return to Serie B despite replacing Giampaolo with Dejan Stankovic halfway through the league.

The rest is recent history, with the Doria’s financial situation deteriorating further, to the point that they couldn’t pay some of their salaries since January 2023. The recent agreement with Radrizzani finally put an end to the agony and let the end credits roll on Sampdoria’s Age of the Viper, perhaps the last of Massimo Ferrero’s movies.

Commenting on the sale, the Viperetta’s farewell was bitter and prophetic: “One day you will miss Ferrero. Time will prove us right. We went through eight good seasons, including the lockdown one,” he told to local TV Telenord via Calciomercato. “This was not a negotiation, they led me to think with my heart (…) I did it for the people, for the people’s salaries.” Claudio Ranieri had a different opinion though, as he sarcastically remarked: “That individual does not care for a bit about Sampdoria.”

So, what to make of the nine of years of the Massimo Ferrero presidency? Perhaps only time will tell. Surely, the Serie A circus loses an exhilarating entertainer – one that you either love or hate, or that perhaps you just do both. One final gag, again taken from the dinner recounted by Mr. Roncone, perhaps best summarizes the Viperetta’s way of life:

Would you like one more drink, Mr. President?,” an obsequious young waiter asked him at some point. “Mr. President, my ass!”, Viperetta barked back. But then, as the poor waiter walked away humiliated, he almost appeared touched and shouted back at him: “Geez, you guys get offended so easily around here, don’t you? Come on, get back! Give me a kiss!

And it ended with the two shaking hands and the waiter scoring an autograph from the Little Viper.