Fiorentina's Rocco Commisso is trying to save Serie A, from protecting stars to building stadiums

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FLORENCE, Italy -- When the waitress comes over to take our drinks order, I'm curious to hear what Rocco Commisso chooses. She jots down a bottle of mineral water. Not a cup of tea, the beverage Pavel Nedved, Juventus' vice-president, recommended Commisso calm down with before talking to the media.

A week after the referee call that so upset Commisso in Turin, he is tranquil enough without having completely moved on. His comments -- "I am digusted." -- may have played well in Florence, and only bolstered his approval rating among locals for writing his name in the bitter history of the fan base's rivalry with Juventus, but they were not meant as an attack on the Old Lady.

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"This was not 'Rocco goes after Juventus,'" Commisso says. "When they were here in Florence we gave them the red carpet. [Gianluigi] Buffon came over and said: 'I want to go and see Rocco.' We hugged and kissed. He was a gentleman." The opponent and location was nothing more than a coincidence, and the second penalty -- whether it was for Juventus or not -- represented the straw that broke the camel's back.

In recognition of the uproar caused by some VAR decisions, the president of the FIGC, Gabriele Gravina, and referee designator, Nicola Rizzoli, announced this week that they are in favour of an experiment with challenges.

"I blew up at the second [penalty], especially after I went to the locker room," Commisso explains. "I had a problem with the combination of everything that had happened."

To Commisso and the Fiorentina hierarchy, it was the latest refereeing decision to leave them perplexed (penalty decisions in matches against Genoa and Inter also raised Commisso's ire) this season. They aren't the only ones either.

Two weeks ago, Napoli sporting director Cristian Giuntoli could not believe the referee did not go to the on-field review and see the mistake he made in booking Arkadiusz Milik for diving instead of awarding him a penalty in the 3-2 defeat to Lecce. On the same theme, Parma coach Roberto d'Aversa was incandescent after his side were denied what he considered two reasonable appeals for spot kicks against Lazio: "The replays are clear. What more do I have to say?" The weekend hadn't even started and Roma coach Paulo Fonseca was telling reporters: "In Italy, the refereeing criteria isn't the same for everyone."

Inconsistencies and apparent double standards continue to inflame. Commisso merely felt he had to defend his club. "I'd only spoken up once before, and that was because of the injuries caused on my players," he says.

Let's be clear, match officials can't allow the outcome of a challenge to influence their decision making. Football is a contact sport and injuries happen, but Commisso believes his players deserve better protection. Three incidents in particular come to mind. Verona's Samuel Di Carmine broke the cheekbone of Fiorentina captain German Pezzella with an elbow in November. "His whole face got demolished," Commisso laments. Di Carmine was only booked and went on to score the lone goal in Verona's 1-0 win. "And then there's Federico Chiesa. They started beating down on Chiesa from the first minute when we played Inter. No red card. No yellow cards. No nothing."

The one that hurts most, though, is the Panagiotis Tachtsidis tackle in December that left Franck Ribery needing his right ankle screwed back together. "We pay €6 million a year to Franck Ribery. It could very well be that he misses 50% of the games. Fifty percent of the games is €3m. I don't give a s--- if [Tachtsidis] gets kicked out [of that game] or not. The thing is that was a huge damage. An asset-value damage. It's like taking [Cristiano] Ronaldo out for four months for Juventus."

The signing of Ribery in the summer of 2019 reflected Commisso's ambition for his new team, finalising his purchase of the club in June and immediately investing heavily. It also demonstrated his intention to enhance the league's appeal. He has invested €300m in seven months: buying the club, players and improving infrastructure. The hope Commisso has generated is bringing fans back to the stadium. Only Milan and Inter sold more season tickets than Fiorentina and the club has just sold another 2,000 for the second half of the campaign. None of that entitles Commisso to anything.

"I do not expect to get treated better than anybody else," he insists, "I do not need any favours on the field." The money spent merely indicates Commisso's desire to better Fiorentina and help Serie A become a more compelling spectacle. Who's with him? "Our goal from day one," he says, "is to grow Italian football all around the world."

The arrivals of Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ribery will only go so far, though.

"The biggest problem we have in Italian football right now is stadiums and infrastructure," adds Fiorentina chief executive Joe Barone, who visited Tottenham's state-of-the-art training ground in Enfield with Commisso's son, Giuseppe, to find inspiration for their own in Bagno a Ripoli just outside Florence. "I've invested all kinds of money already to make Bagno a Ripoli the biggest training centre in Italy, where we'll bring the youth team, the women's team and the men's first team all together," Commisso explains.

He wants a stadium to match. Next year the Artemio Franchi will celebrate its 90th birthday. Fiorentina don't own it. At the moment they pay €2m a year in rent to use it, the offices it includes, and the adjacent training ground. "We now have an issue coming up for next season," Barone reveals. "The lighting. First of all, they no longer make the bulbs for the floodlights. Second, the lighting no longer meets UEFA standards." Making those adjustments will likely set Fiorentina back another couple of million. "We'll get it done," Commisso promises. Just as they got the pitch relaid within a week of the Coppa Italia starting, so dismayed were they with its condition over the summer.

For all the Franchi's charm -- its free-standing roof, its spiral staircases, the Maratona tower and other examples of the architectural movement known as Italian rationalism -- there are no functioning toilets in the Curva, the fans deserve to be a lot closer to the action and there's so much dead space left uncommercialised. Within the Financial Fair Play framework, Fiorentina's spending power is dependent on boosting revenues. The Franchi, which makes them just €8m a season, is a limit on that and the protected status of its features make restyling it a challenge. Commisso would effectively have to build a stadium within a stadium.

"I came here thinking a lot of work has been done over the last few years with the law, the planning, the site and where it's going to be," he says. "Absolutely not. ... I tried to be respectful from the first day I came here by working first with the Franchi. We proposed something with the Franchi that could be done very quickly. It was turned down largely by the superintendent of the cultural heritage office. And then we worked for the Mercafir with the thought that the Mercafir site was ready to go but it's not ready to go." The land is valued at €22m, too high according to Fiorentina's estimates, while other direct costs that the club must incur makes the overall price of building a stadium in this location -- near the airport, some five kilometres outside of town -- prohibitively high.

Despite Fiorentina's best efforts in the past eight months, no meaningful progress has been made, and stated plans to complete a new ground by September 2023 are behind schedule. "I'm disappointed about the timing," Commisso says. "We're seeing stadiums get built in Germany, Spain, England, France. Why not Italy?"

Commisso does not want to trade places with Jim Pallotta as Serie A's Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a hill under immense strain, doing everything to give Roma a new home, only for bureaucracy to send the rock rolling back down to the bottom.

It's why Barone is working on an alliance of the Serie A teams acquired by foreign investors in the hope that, as a block, they can affect the change they want to see and unlock the league's potential. Commisso claims his motivation for investing in Serie A was to give back to the country he left as a 12-year-old. He turned 70 in November. "I'm limited in what I can do," he says, "because of the stadium factor. Then there's the age factor because I'm not young and I want to be able to leave something for Florence."

Ten minutes before the end of Saturday's game against Atalanta, supporters unfurled another banner in the Fiesole. It didn't matter that Fiorentina were losing and the relegation zone is now closer than the European places. "Forza Rocco," it read. "Florence is with you." The fans see the big picture. But does the Lega Serie A? And what about the municipality? That's the question.