Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Italy at odds with Brussels over using EU money for football stadium

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Italy’s controversial plan to put €55mn of EU money towards renovating a football stadium in Florence has been challenged by the European Commission, highlighting Rome’s struggle to find suitable projects for the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund.

The European Commission has also questioned the Italian government’s plan to build two sport facilities in Venice, using an additional €93.5mn of the Covid-19 recovery funds, of which Italy is the largest beneficiary in the bloc.

The Italian government said late on Monday that Brussels had raised questions about the merits of funding these sports venues, contributing to a delay in the disbursement of Italy’s next €19bn tranche of the recovery funds.

The plan to use recovery money as part of a €193.4mn overhaul of Florence’s crumbling, 40,000-seat Artemio Franchi stadium — the home turf of football team ACF Fiorentina — is highly contentious, even within the country.

“If the project could be financed by private investors, why do you use the public money?” said Luciano Monti, an economics professor at Luiss University in Rome. “A stadium normally could be financed by private people.”

The reinforced concrete stadium, owned by the city of Florence, was designed and built by architect and civil engineer Pier Luigi Nervi in the 1930s and was considered a technological marvel of its time. But the dilapidated, century-old structure makes a poor home for the requirements of a modern football club and its fans.

Fiorentina’s owner Rocco Commisso, an Italian-born, US cable television magnate who paid €170mn to buy the team in 2019, wanted to build a state of the art stadium at the Franchi site at his own expense.

But his talk of demolishing the well-known structure — which is used on the pages of Italian passports — provoked an outcry from Nervi’s descendants and architectural preservationists, who campaigned to have the Franchi declared a national cultural landmark.

“It’s the first modern stadium in the world — and a monument for sports architecture generally,” said Elisabetta Margiotta Nervi, co-founder of the Pier Luigi Nervi Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the engineer’s legacy.

In 2021, Italy’s culture ministry declared the dilapidated site a protected landmark — much to Commisso’s dismay.

“There seems to be more interest in preserving a dilapidated, 90-year-old reinforced concrete structure than giving fans the opportunity to enjoy sports events at an avant-garde stadium with modern-day facilities and comforts,” he said at the time.

Since then, Florence’s centre-left mayor, Dario Nardella, has taken the lead in drawing up a costly plan to improve the stadium and meet the needs of a modern sporting venue.

But the modernisation plans drawn up by Arup, the global design consultancy that also designed the famed Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, have incensed Nervi, who said the current design would be obliterated by the addition of a cover, VIP boxes and other facilities.

“They will make the original stadium vanish — it will be gone. We are destroying a national monument by building around it.”

Commisso could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. He recently quipped that he might take the team to Switzerland.

The stadium controversy comes amid growing concerns about Italy’s ability to spend its entire €200bn share of the EU recovery money by 2026, when the funding lapses. On Tuesday, Raffaele Fitto, Italy’s minister for European affairs, said some projects simply could not be realised on time.

“It’s mathematical — its scientific,” Fitto told a news conference. “We have to say it clearly.” The government has sought to extend that deadline, an unlikely prospect as the decision would require unanimity among other EU capitals.

The proposals for the stadium projects — to be funded with money designated for rejuvenating dilapidated urban neighbourhoods — were approved in Italy last year when Mario Draghi was prime minister.

However, commission officials have said it was not clear that the Florence and Venice stadium projects fulfilled the recovery plan’s goals of making rundown neighbourhoods greener and more sustainable.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government said it was working to resolve the issues so the ambitious reform and investment program — billed as a once-in a-generation opportunity to reboot Italy’s chronically underperforming economy and tackle its most serious social challenges — could move forward.

 While some in the government have expressed private misgivings about the projects, Rome said it intended to “provide additional elements to support the admissibility” of the sports facilities as part of wider urban renewal plans for the two renowned tourist centres.

The month-long delay agreed between Rome and Brussels would “make sure all evidence provided by Italy can be properly considered”, said a commission spokesperson. “Such an extension is not unusual.”

Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome and Sam Fleming in Brussels

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