Manchester United superstar George Best once commented that he’d spent most of his money on women, drink and fast cars. “The rest I wasted.” Now Italian football icon Damiano Tommasi is telling his fellow professionals to “waste” some of their vast earnings on government bonds. The president of the Italian Professional Footballers Association called on members to invest in government bonds to help ease the country’s debt crisis, joining a grassroots movement that aims to unite Italians of all stripes and show foreigners that “we believe in our country”.
Like highly paid young sportsmen the world over, Italy’s calciatori off the field make headlines for their antics between the sheets, not their prowess in the markets. The nearest they get to a patriotic investment is buying a new Ferrari. But Tommasi, a former star Roma midfielder, insisted to the independent Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, “We know that we have a lot of media power and can influence fans… We want to do something to help Italy.”
Italy needs all the help it can get at the moment. Already suffering from slow growth rates and high public debt, it risks becoming the next victim of a European debt crisis that just will not go away. With Greece, Portugal and Ireland all requiring bailouts from their eurozone partners, for some time the question has been, “Is Italy the next Greece?”
But Italy is not mere Greece. Italy is Europe’s third biggest economy. Too big to be allowed to fail? Or too big to bail, given that Europe’s coffers are almost empty? If Italy defaults, people fear a domino effect that could bring down the Euro, with disastrous knock-on effects for the whole global economy.
Goal? Buy Italian
With international investors leery of buying Italian debt despite high yields, businessmen and bankers came up with the idea of encouraging Italians to buy government bonds, or BTPs, declaring November 28 “BTP Day.” A Tuscan leasing agent, Giovanni Melani, was the first to issue the rallying call, buying a full page ad in leading daily Corriere della Sera to ask his “fellow citizens, friends and brothers” to “buy our debt.” He listed some of the ways that all Italians were responsible for allowing the debt to accumulate, starting with, “not paying our taxes.”
What they had caused, they could put right. “We don’t need government and we don’t need banks,” he tells me, harking back to the days when most of Italy’s national debt was owned by its citizens. Now almost half is in the hands of foreign investors, given jitters by the failure of successive Italian governments to control the mounting deficit, or modernize the economy.
The country’s banking association and individual institutions backed Melani’s challenge by waiving their commission on multi-year treasury bonds. On the 28th, the 51-year-old showed up at his bank and bought €20,000 worth of the bonds, known as titoli. National and local politicians from both sides of the political spectrum also queued up to put their hands in their pockets in the name of national solidarity. Missing from the lines was Italy’s richest man, former premiere Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned on November 12. He was busy testifying in one of the many court cases involving him. Despite Berlusconi’s absence, preliminary data suggested strong sales, with banks reporting an unusually high volume of small orders.
“87,000 ordinary Italians went to their bank on November 28 to buy government bonds, almost five times the usual number,” said Melani. He predicts the next BTP Day on December 12 will be equally successful.
Making the national team
Footballers, led by Udinese “bomber” Antonio di Natale, also did their part. Did they really help? “I was delighted with their commitment,” said Melani. “We usually assume that they don’t care about social and political issues, but they demonstrated that they were prepared to make a contribution for the common good.”
Besides individual players, the footballers’ association is thought to have bought €100,000 worth of bonds from its own funds. Cynics, noting that top Serie A players can earn that in a week, called it little more than a clever public relations exercise aimed at repairing damage done when a strike delayed the start of this year’s championship. But some fans said it was only right that they buy bonds.
“Footballers are privileged, they should do something for the country,” said Paolo Fichera, a Roma fan. As to whether fans had followed their favorites to the banks, Fichera shrugged his shoulders. “Roma fans certainly trust former Roma players more than politicians.” Had he bought bonds? He mimed rifling through empty pockets, “Couldn’t afford it.”
Tommasi said it wasn’t a stunt. “It will take more than this to change how people feel about footballers,” he said. The devout Catholic and father of five is known for his philanthropy. Teammates called him “Anima Candida” (Pure Soul), when fellow players were answering to “The Snarl,” or “The Bull.” It can’t have hurt to have him lead the way.
The Italian press have been quick to seize on an example of national solidarity in what has recently seemed a bitterly divided country.
A few footballers, fans and small businessmen investing in government bonds will not solve Italy’s financial woes, let alone Europe’s. But “BTP Day” may mark a watershed in the national psyche, a break with the greed and selfishness of the Berlusconi era. Melani believes that it demonstrated that, “if the people are united, they are more powerful than speculators.” If Italians agree and accept that they are all partially responsible for the current malaise and can all do their bit to turn things round, it could change the attitudes that have long hampered Italy’s development. That lesson could apply beyond the borders of the Bel Paese.