The Portanova case study: lack of crisis management in the Italian football industry

Manolo Portanova is an Italian professional footballer playing for Genoa CFC, Italy’s oldest club (currently relegated to Italy’s lower division, Serie B). Born in 2000 into his trade, since his father is Daniele, a former Serie A defender, Manolo Portanova has played for the youth team of important clubs such as Lazio and Juventus, with whom he made his Serie A debut in 2019. His records also show 3 appearances with the Under-21 Italy national team, two of which occurred in March 2022.

Towards the end of May 2021, a young woman pressed charges against Manolo Portanova, his brother (who was a minor at the time), his uncle, and a friend of theirs alleging that they had gang raped her during a recent party in the city of Siena. On the night in question, she had also sought and received emergency treatment at city hospital with a 40-day prognosis. On June 10th, 2021, following an injunction, Manolo Portanova was placed under house arrest and then released awaiting trial. The men have always maintained their innocence and to this day claim that all sexual intercourse with the plaintiff was consensual.

Since being released, Portanova has regularly taken part in training sessions and matches and the club has avoided commenting on the allegations. However, on December 6th, 2022, Portanova was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to six years in prison pending appeal, along with his uncle. Of the other alleged perpetrators, his friend’s trial will begin in February, as he chose to submit to a different adjudication process, and his brother is currently undergoing criminal prosecution in the Juvenile Court in Florence.

The next day, several media reported Genoa CFC’s first comment on the matter: “The sentence against Manolo Portanova is a unique case in the Italian football industry, there is no precedent, and we are looking into how we should behave in relation to it, always assuming that this is a preliminary sentence pending appeal and that, therefore, there is a presumption of innocence that must still be respected.”

The club then initially selected him to play against Südtirol on December 8th, only to change its mind and removing him from both first and substitution lineups after harsh blowback from fans on social media. After the game, however, Portanova still joined his teammates on the pitch to celebrate their victory. Fans and other observers were quick to point out the club’s hypocrisy, allowing an alleged rapist to celebrate normally on the field only a few days after its participation in initiatives for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25th).

Genoa CFC’s management seems to be wary of taking significant action against Portanova in fear of lawsuits for damages caused should he be acquitted on appeal, and it appears that moving forward the club has delegated decision making on squad selection entirely to the team’s manager, seemingly treating this case as if it were nothing more than a thorny technical matter.

It should be noted, at this point, that the club hired the manager in question, Alberto Gilardino – a former striker of Italy’s 2006 World Cup winning national team – on the very same day that Manolo Portanova was found guilty. Delegating such a sensitive decision to someone who had literally spent only a couple of days in his position sounds more like a ‘convenient’ dodge on the Board’s part rather than the ‘right’ choice to protect the club’s image.

That said, on December 10th, Gilardino announced that Portanova would not be selected for the Ascoli match on the next day, but he and the club refused to release any further comment. Now, it seems that the prosecutors of the Italian football federation have asked the Court of Siena for documents related to the proceedings of Portanova’s trial, as they are likely assessing the possibility of charging the player for violations of Article 4 of the Code of Sports Justice, which establishes an obligation for all athletes to respect principles of decency and integrity regardless of criminality.

Provided that the presumption of innocence is not in question and the appeal process will clarify whether Portanova and the other defendants are guilty or innocent in a legal sense, the reason for writing this article is to consider Genoa CFC’s handling of the case from a crisis management perspective. Many organizations still severely underestimate the importance of a crisis management program, disregarding the importance of incorporating, in its normal operations, sound practices aimed at anticipating critical events, assessing threats, preventing and mitigating impacts, preparing the organization, responding effectively to incidents of various kinds (including reputational ones, such as the Portanova case), and recovering in a challenging environment.

Genoa CFC is probably one of them, but they are certainly not alone in the Italian football industry and even beyond.

Indeed, the club’s management seems to have been taken by surprise. While this would be understandable in the face of sudden and unexpected crises, it is harder to conceive how they could have let themselves be caught off guard in this case. That Portanova would face a criminal trial, with a possible, if preliminary, guilty verdict had been clear since mid-2021. They should have designed and implemented a response strategy in advance. They had plenty of time. Instead, they are clearly showing themselves to be unprepared.

As thorny as the situation is, the Board had all the resources necessary to demonstrate steadfastness amidst uncertainty. Clearly, they did not take advantage of them. Football, as an industry, is a business that draws intense scrutiny from both the media and the wider public. It was obvious that a guilty verdict, even if pending appeal, would cause controversy, but the few interactions with the press and public that the club has made in the past couple of days display nothing but confusion on how to position Genoa CFC in response to this issue.

Genoa CFC claims that this case is unprecedented in the Italian football industry, but clubs from other countries have already faced similar situations. As the Italian journalist Alessia Tarquinio, the face of Amazon Prime’s Champions League programming and a regular voice on gender equality in football, rightfully noted in her Instagram stories, Benjamin Mendy and Mason Greenwood were both suspended by their clubs – English giants Manchester City and Manchester United, respectively – after allegations of sexual violence. Learning from past experiences is key to building a crisis management capability.

Surely this case is putting a lot of pressure on Genoa CFC and its management team. They seem to be caught facing a perceived dilemma, which is not uncommon in a crisis because strategic decision-making in these cases is often characterized by uncertainty. However, crisis management is rarely about taking a decision that is fully ‘right’; it is rather about adopting solutions that are sustainable, defensible, and better than others that may generate further issues. The club is avoiding decisions in an attempt to preserve its legal position, but by putting the possible legal impacts of a suspension / termination of the player’s contract ahead of the reputational damages Genoa CFC is already facing, its managers are taking a significant moral hazard by seeming to support a message that is unpopular to say the least.

When it comes to reputation, especially when the matter is delicate, as it certainly is in Portanova’s case, organizations should always be transparent and provide the media with their own narrative. Genoa CFC is simply not doing so, and this gives rise to speculations as to whether the club’s management does or does not care about the concerns and views of the fans and other interested parties.

Last, but not least: clearly, there is no need to be a woman to be sensitive about rape; however, the Italian football industry does not stand out as an excellent example of gender balance, and this does not help. Diversity is always a value, but having multiple perspectives when dealing with a crisis (especially a reputational one) can also make a really significant, and positive, difference. Crisis response is always guided by an organization’s core values and should take ethical expectations into account to help it build trust, protect its brand, and enhance its reputation.

 

Author: Alberto Mattia

 

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