When thinking of the most iconic examples of a life lived to the limit, one does not always look at the football world, at least not at the owners of top-flight clubs. But, if there's a man who really embodied this spirit while being the chairman of a Serie A side, it is former Perugia president Luciano Gaucci. His way of acting on the thin border between legality and illegality, and actually trespassing it on various occasions, made him one of football’s most controversial figures. Possessing a Serie A club is just one of the many things Gaucci did in his interesting life, and a leap back is essential to understand his character.
The beginning of his journey to the top coincides almost exactly with the beginning of his life. Born in 1938, the young Gaucci quickly realised he didn't want to be a little landowner like his parents, and decided to try and pursue his dreams in the capital. He started from the bottom, specifically as a bus driver for ATAC, Rome's public transport company. After some time, ATAC announced an internal competition, a chance that Gaucci took with all the exuberance of his youth, and which brought him from the seat of a public bus to the swivel chair behind a desk of a comfortable office. It was a good job for someone his age, but not for the ambitious Luciano, already thinking about how to get onto the next rung.
Gaucci's mind was filled with ideas and what came out of this was the decision to go his own way; he founded La Milanese (The Milanese), a cleaning company based in Rome. When asked about the reasons behind that name, Gaucci simply replied that he would have never got a contract in Northern Italy if they knew the company came from Rome. At least this is the story as it's told.
In any case, La Milanese gained some importance in the cleaning landscape, and the tactic behind its name proved fruitful, as the company obtained several big jobs around the Po, in addition to those in Rome. In the meantime, a fascination for horse racing was emerging in Gaucci. A passion or, maybe, just another plan for moving toward the top—we will never know the exact truth behind his reasoning.
With the money earned from La Milanese, Gaucci could finally afford to buy a horse, and so he did. Tony Bin was an Irish thoroughbred, with an ebony-coloured coat and a proud look, but still far from being a champion. Gaucci named the horse after a poor Italian painter living in Paris, who the wannabe tycoon first saw at the Louvre while trying to paint a copy of the Mona Lisa. They talked to each other, and Tony invited Luciano to the attic where he lived. There, Gaucci bought one of his paintings for ₤1 million.
In 1988, Tony Bin (the horse, not the painter) surprisingly won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Gran Premio del Jockey Club, two of the most prestigious races in the world. It was now worth a fortune. Gaucci, who only paid ₤7 million (lira) for the horse, sold it to a Japanese stable for ₤5 billion, which were added to the ₤3.4 billion won in the races. Gaucci went to sleep a well-to-do man, and woke up a billionaire.
Thomas Jefferson once said that, “If you want something you've never had, you must be willing to do something you've never done.” The things that Gaucci wanted were eternal glory, as well as some other millions. But for a man who had already been a bus driver, an employee, a cleaning man, an art collector, a racehorse owner and God only knows what else, it wasn't easy to find something he had never done.
But suddenly, one day, his dynamic mind whispered into his hear: ‘Why don't you buy a football club?’ He was already vice-president of Roma back then, but owning a club was a completely different story. Lucianone wasn’t afraid of new challenges and, as soon as a chance revealed itself to him, he promptly caught it. On 7 November 1991, he became the new president of Associazione Calcistica Perugia. This time he hadn't to share the chair with anybody.
The team were then playing in Serie C1, but Gaucci had already envisioned a bright future for them. A future that was likely to bring to the new presidente all the things his ego demanded.
It was the beginning of an era. The Gaucci-style way of administering a club was something rarely seen before, especially in Italy's minor leagues. Right from the start, Big Luciano wanted people to talk about Perugia, but that was not a simple task when his club was as small as the red-and-whites, at least until he convinced a 1982 World Cup winner to play for him. It took all of Gaucci's ability to bring Giuseppe Dossena to Umbria, but then the first step was done: Italy was finally aware of the existence of Perugia Calcio.
Gaucci's plan was to take Perugia to the top flight within five years. At the end of 1992-93 season, Perugia managed to reach Serie B after a one-game playoff against Acireale, but the joy was ephemeral, because it vanished the day after.
It seems that Emanuele Senzacqua, the referee of two matches played by Perugia that year (namely Siracusa - Perugia and Perugia - Nola), was a great horse enthusiast and a friend of Gaucci’s. It also seems that the two used to have lunch together, and during one of these lunches the purchase of one of Gaucci's horses by Senzacqua's father-in-law was agreed upon. Once questioned by the investigators, Gaucci tried everything to explain that those lunches weren't related to fixtures in any way but the referee, under pressure, admitted everything. The result was that Acireale were promoted to Serie B and Gaucci was disqualified for three years, during which he kept going to the stadium every Sunday, paying a hefty fine every time.
In 1996, Perugia finally made it to Serie A, with the likes of Marco Materazzi, Gennaro Gattuso and Massimiliano Allegri in their ranks. Unfortunately, their long-awaited experience in the top league only lasted for one season, and the biancorossi were relegated at the end of a disgraceful campaign. But Gaucci wasn't meant to give up. He reorganised the team and, after a harsh season, Perugia returned to the big stage.
The 1998-99 season was exemplary of Gaucci's transfer policy. While a club the size of Perugia couldn't compete with richer ones when it looking to buy from South America and Europe's top stages, they could look elsewhere, in corners of the world where there are no scouts from richer clubs to throw a spanner in the works.
Milan Rapaić, in the roster since 1996, was already loved by the fans, and Gaucci wanted to collect other bargains like the Croatian forward. He thus started to send his men around the globe to spot new, hidden phenomena. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they were not, but it was fine: that was just the Gaucci way.
That year, a lot of new players landed in Umbria, including the Finnish Mika Lekhosuo from HJK Helsinki, the Ecuadorean Iván Kaviedes from Emelec and the Serbian Dejan Stefanović from Sheffield Wednesday, to name just a few. These were among the unsuccessful ones, but there were also some bets Gaucci won, like Hidetoshi Nakata—taken from Shonan Bellmare for $3.5 million, the Japanese had an outstanding season and drew attention from Roma, who bought him for ten times the sum originally paid by Perugia. It was practically another Tony Bin.
But Gaucci also bought players from inside the national borders, like Giovanni Tedesco, Zé Maria and Gabriele Grossi, forming a heterogeneous group that, with two coaches throughout the campaign (Ilario Castagner and Vujadin Boškov), was able to avoid relegation on the last week.
In the following seasons, Perugia kept getting better. Their best finish in Serie A was eighth place in 2001-02, but the team hailed as 'Perugia dei miracoli' (The Miraculous Perugia) did even better. Against all expectations, the squad guided by a young Serse Cosmi won the 2003 Intertoto Cup. Unfortunately, they were also relegated at the end of the following season, marking the end of the most glorious era the city of Perugia had ever lived. After one year in Serie B the club, buried by debts, went bankrupt.
Gaucci, accused of fraudulent bankruptcy, fled to the Dominican Republic. Then, after four years on the run, he made his way back to the peninsula because, in the meantime, his sentence to three years in prison had been revoked with the pardon. He's still living in Italy today, where his name is linked to the most bizarre purchases Italian football has ever witnessed.
In the 2000 winter transfer window, Gaucci thought he had the chance to pick up another pearl from the Far East in the South Korean Jung-Hwan Ahn, taken from Busan I'cons (now Busan IPark) to reinforce Perugia's attacking line. In Italy, Ahn collected 34 appearances, but never showed the same potential as Nakata. Despite this, Cosmi once declared that he was technically outstanding and very dedicated to the attacking phase, and that he had good chances to make a good career.
Unfortunately for Ahn, after 2002 he was forced to continue his career away from the boot-shaped country, because he was 'guilty' of having scored the golden goal which sent Italy out of the 2002 World Cup. Gaucci didn't take it well, stating, “I'm a nationalist, and with his behaviour he hurt my Italian pride as well as this whole country, that opened its doors for him two years ago.” Gaucci refused to pay Ahn’s wages and the player made his way back to Asia, joining Japanese side Shimizu S-Pulse.
More than 10 years after, in an interview released to South Korean television, Ahn told the story of his Italian days, when the team-mates marginalised him. “They seldom gave me the ball,” he said. “Even if I was alone in front of the goalpost.” He also said that Materazzi insulted him in the dressing room—“He rushed into the dressing room shouting at me, in front of everybody, [saying] that I stank of garlic. I didn't know what he was saying and the interpreter blushed because he was too embarrassed to translate.”
Poor Ahn became the only footballer in history whose talent and career were hampered by a goal he scored, instead of one he missed.
The story of Ma Mingyu, on the other hand, is a completely different one.
“If Del Piero is nicknamed Pinturicchio, I'd like to be called Michelangelo.” These were among the first words that the Chinese midfielder pronounced in front of Italian journalists, proving that, with regards to personal ambition and knowledge of Renaissance painters, he was second to no one. However, right from the start, Ma seemed an extraneous object to Italian football—he didn't study Italian, he lived secluded with his wife, and his only contacts with the outside world were the phone calls he made to his daughter in China three times a day. He didn't talk to anyone and spent his days watching DVDs with subtitles and listening to old Chinese music, earning the nickname 'grandpa' in the process.
Discussing Ma, coach Cosmi once said that: “He's got quality, he's got vision, he's this close to [stopping] me from sending him [to] the stands every Sunday.” It's impossible not to see the (not so) slight irony behind Cosmi's words and, supposing that Ma really had some qualities, he was never given the chance to show them in Serie A. In the whole season, he only played a summer friendly match and a handful of minutes in the Coppa Italia match versus Salernitana, returning to his beloved China at the end of the campaign.
Gaucci also searched the Arab world for players, but while Rahman Rezaei, bought from Iranian side Zob Ahan, proved a sound addition, the same cannot be said of Saadi Gaddafi.
No, it's not a namesake. We are talking of that Gaddafi, third son of Muammar, the Libyan Revolutionary Chairman. Saadi wasn't only a footballer, he was also the proprietor of Tamoil. He owned 33 per cent of Triestina and 7 per cent of Juventus. It doesn't take a genius to understand why Gaucci welcomed him like a head of state upon his arrival at Perugia.
In the end, Gaddafi only played 15 minutes in the whole 2003-04 season, incidentally against Juventus, the team he supported economically. He then moved to Udinese and Sampdoria, without even touching the grass for a second. And, despite his experience in one of the most important leagues in the world, Gaddafi's career didn't take off after his Italian spell. Rather, he ended up on Interpol's shortlist of international arrest warrants after the Libyan civil war.
A complete biographical profile of Luciano Gaucci should probably include a mention of his desire to include women in his team, or of the fact he entrusted Viterbese, another club he owned in the minor leagues, to Carolina Morace, the first-ever female manager in male football. And a whole other chapter should be dedicated to the battle he fought against the 'major powers', to the insults he shouted at Italian football personalities, to the YouTube videos showing him dragged away after trying to punch or spit at people who, according to him, “were trying to hamper Perugia's rise.” Some words could be devoted to the countless quarrels he had with the coaches he hired, just because they didn't share his political views or refused to apply his not-always-acceptable directives.
The Gauccian universe is striking and multiform. We could spend time talking about a number of other issues, but then a book would be needed. And besides, Gaucci has been and still is a character so particular that every attempt to fully reveal his story wouldn't do justice to the man himself. Few have been so singular and yet so innovative in their approach to football, both as a game and as a business, like Gaucci, and unveiling all of his facets is impossible. Mysterious and legendary, unearthing every fragment of his life is probably something nobody will ever be able to accomplish.
Words by Franco Ficetola @Franco92C14
'Franco is a son of Rome who grew up admiring Totti's assists and chasing a ball through the streets of the capital's suburbs. Now he spends most of his time watching football matches, regardless of the league, the country or the level. He also writes for @JustFootball.'