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Butler: Impact president Saputo still a fan at heart

Noel Butler
8/24/2012 3:51:38 PM
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FOUNDER, PRESIDENT, OWNER ULTIMATELY A HIGHLY PASSIONATE FAN

Whichever way that improbable playoff ball rolls down Saputo Stadium way no one can deny that the Impact's inaugural season in Major League Soccer sits firmly above Toronto FC's class of 2007 and the Whitecaps' class of 2011.

When though the Impact started the campaign after seven less than magnificent matches the MLS rookies had recorded but the solitary victory, whilst losing five. Not only were they leaking goals at an alarming rate often it was painful to watch.

Carving out an identity, a football philosophy was not possible. Sometimes you wondered if it was actually football the team was playing. Foul or be fouled appeared to override all else.

The mid-point of the season was met with the club's most resounding defeat to date and a most demoralizing one at that - 0-3 at home in front of a certain 2006 World Cup winner. Adding to the Impact pain, it came against their biggest rival. The final whistle was met with players walking off the pitch with their heads buried in hands.

Complete apathy and ambivalence reigned in the stands.

That is apart from Impact President Joey Saputo, who as the players were making the long drudge towards the dressing room from the comfort of his seat in amongst the supporters he took to the social media landscape. Four words are all it took. "Absolute disgrace, enough said." Hundreds of retweets immediately followed.

Now some two months on Saputo was philosophical when explaining what he meant that midsummer's night.

Telling TSN.ca, "As you know I'm the type of guy that I'm very, very involved with the club. I've always said it, I'm not going to hide the fact I'm maybe the Impact's number 1 fan and sometimes I say certain things I shouldn't say as the President and owner of the club.

"But I say it more as a fan and as a fan I saw this game as an absolute disgrace. The way we played, the way we performed in front of our fans and it was something I couldn't accept. It's a spur of the moment but as a fan I thought; my team, my home team, the team that I root for and the team that I bleed for didn't excite me at all."

Unbeknown at this exact time and even with over 58,000 showing up for the home opener, close to 61,000 for the L.A. Galaxy match the club were deeply concerned with the extremely poor attendances since moving back into their revamped Saputo Stadium.

Then on July 6, some 10 days after that 3-0 defeat to Toronto FC and as Alessandro Nesta walked from the media conference room just announced as an Impact player with him barely out of ear shot, Saputo alongside Executive VP of the Impact and Stade Saputo Richard Legendre took to the rostrum to announce the club would with immediate effect overhaul the ticket pricing structures.

The club had just suffered three straight defeats and each time coughing up three goals so something had to give.

"When you take a look at the games that followed that press conference we see the stadium is full. More than it's full, it's like the players are feeding off the fact it is and we are playing some great, great football.

"At the end of the day you say it was the right decision to make. It was a difficult one we had to justify certain things to the MLS as to why we were changing them. We're revising our prices it doesn't mean we are lowering our prices."

"We had been somewhat aggressive going into the season. We had took our ticket pricing model based on a market survey that was done by a reputable firm. Unfortunately the survey didn't reflect the reality and it was important for us to make the necessary changes. Sooner rather than later. I wasn't going to wait to the end of the season to say this is what we did wroung this is what what we are going to change for next year. We saw it, we made the revision and we decided to take action"

"If you take a look at where we are today versus a lot of MLS clubs whether it be our ticket prices, our attendance numbers there's nothing that we should be ashamed of. We're in the top tier of where the league is."

As this six-week period or so has played out, the club has undergone a renaissance. Significantly so both on and off the pitch and it started immediately.

A crowd of barely 12,000 had bothered to show up when the Impact were bettered by Sporting KC on July 4. Then four sleeps later, a mere 48 hours after Saputo and Legendre's press conference and with a significant upsurge in attendance the Impact pulled off their very first come from behind victory of the season - against a Columbus Crew side that had only suffered the lone defeat in their previous eight league matches.

Saputo doesn't put this best run of form all season long down to a singular event but a diverse set of circumstances that have played themselves out over this period.

"I think there's a lot of different factors. Obviously the players are more comfortable with each other bringing in an experienced player like Alessandro Nesta changes the way we train, changes the way we do certain things. And brings with it a lot of experiences on and off the field – that always helps."

"We made some changes within the personnel. Some players that we felt didn't necessarily fit the style of play we wanted to show our fans. We bought in other players, let go of some and at the end of the day it was a mix of a lot of decisions that were taken at the technical level that helped with a resurgence of the club."

But as Murphy's Law dictates just as things are on the up and up something occurs that results in a wheel or two disengaging.

For the Impact this came in the not too inconsiderable cloud matter that formed around Marco Di Vaio as he became directly implicated in the Clacioscommesse scandal that engulfed Italian football in the lead up to EURO 2012.

"We had spoken with Marco privately about that well before he signed for the club. The way he spoke about that and the passion that he had about it I felt very, very comfortable he had nothing to do with it. When it did come public Marco reassured us I am going to go and clear my name. I am going to fight it because I have got absolutely nothing to hide.  Not that we needed it but Marco's attitude throughout gave continually gave us reassurances."

"When the verdict came out first time we as an organization were relieved and apart from Marco himself I don't honestly feel it affected the technical side of the club whatsoever. At the very beginning, fans I hope understand why he wasn't able to perform to the levels he is capable of. There was this dark cloud, there was this issue."

"Remember though he bought his family over. He picked up, moved, came to a new country and now his whole life was in limbo. Moving his whole family from Europe to Canada, finding a house, schooling for his kids integrating into a new culture, a new language was his responsibility to his family knowing 'I maybe suspended for three months or six months what's going to happen?'"

"You can imagine the pressure it put him under as the player and now looking back you say maybe that's what affected him as a player and maybe he didn't do what he was supposed to do the first six or seven games that he came in."

Di Vaio was fully confident that the appeal by the prosecutor would be dismissed out of hand. So much so and unlike in the original case where he traveled to Rome in person he left the appeal in the hands of his lawyers.

Remaining back in Montreal, where ultimately Di Vaio scored the equalizer in what eventually turned out to be a fourth straight victory against San Jose last Saturday night.

"I think that you'll see a different Marco Di Vaio between now and the end of the year, he's a player that is relieved."

"From a club standpoint all the way through this entire process we were behind him 100 per cent.  Marco was a player we met with who was very, very open with us the 1st time we met with him in Europe and through the other opportunities we had to speak with him. When he came here we knew exactly what was happening and that he was telling me the truth. Which is exactly what happened to be the case."

Greeting Di Vaio and his teammates Saturday afternoon will be 20,000 fans for a match that will herald the first time the Impact have been able to open up the top tier of the extended East Stand.

"It will be opened up tomorrow, there are though still around another 300 seats that should be completed without a problem in time for our next home match September 22. We will see tomorrow that the whole of the stand from the scoreboard to the Saputo Family Zone will be opened"

Happy with the recent progress of his club as a fan and as club president Saputo is thoroughly delighted for the Women's national team following their incredible exploits in London. Even it is tinged with disappointment and personal disappointment at that.

"First and foremost big congratulations to the Canadian women's national team at the London Olympics. Sadly though we are only reminded of them when they do great things in international tournaments and it's not fair. Not fair at all to women's soccer across Canada.

"We talk about them if they do well at a World Cup or do poorly at a World Cup but in between we don't talk about them, we don't support them and it's most unfortunate. I hope that changes in due time. Myself as a soccer person I have to do my part to help it like everyone else in Canada should do their part."

Speaking of doing his part and as the nation eagerly awaits the 2015 Women's World Cup Finals, Saputo would warmly welcome opportunity to host matches.

"As for playing a game here we have not as yet been approached by the Canadian Soccer Association – we're a soccer-specific stadium and we are in Canada. The CSA has my number and I would be more than happy to help them achieve great things for the team."

Before that though comes the business end of the MLS season. With DC United four points and still with three games in hand, a playoff position for the Impact is slowly ebbing away. "We're not throwing in the towel for this year." was Saputo's response to DC collecting those all-important three points Wednesday against the Fire.

On Saturday afternoon, six points are on offer. Come final whistle the Impact could by then be seven points adrift. Alternatively with a fifth straight victory the Impact would wash up on the playoff shoreline with only the single point separating the clubs.

At this point the playoff horizon appears most distant for Saputo or to any of his 58,000-plus fellow Impact fans who packed into Olympic Stadium that fidget February evening back in 2009.

To a man, woman and child no one though will need reminding the nigh on improbable does happen in football.

Montreal Impact vs. DC United can be seen live on TSN2, Saturday at 4pm et/1pm pt.

Noel Butler

Noel Butler


Noel Butler is an analyst for TSN's soccer coverage and his blog can be read on TSN.ca. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/TheSoccerNoel and listen to his radio program oranges@halftime on TSN Radio 690 Montreal.

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