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Behind the curtain with football’s prophet of the deal

Romano has 6.5
million followers on Twitter, 2 1/2 times as many as, say, Inter Milan, the
team that featured in Romano’s breakthrough moment, or Bruno Fernandes, the
Manchester United star who inadvertently made Romano a global phenomenon.

He has 5.6 million
more on Instagram, and a further 4.5 million devotees on Facebook. There are
also 692,000 subscribers on YouTube and 450,000 on Twitch, the video streaming
platform.

Or there are at the
moment, anyway. Chances are that in the gap between the writing of that
paragraph and your reading it, Romano’s figures will have ticked inexorably
skyward. It is January, after all, one of the biannual boom times for a
journalist covering football’s frenetic, multibillion-dollar transfer market.
Every day, Romano’s accounts will draw another few hundred fans, another few
thousand even, all desperately seeking news of the players their team is or is
not signing.

Yet, even as these
social media metrics provide an immediately comprehensible, faintly
intimidating snapshot of the breadth of Romano’s popularity — self-professed
insiders covering the NBA and the NFL could make similar claims — they do not
tell us much about quite how deep his impact runs.

Last month, Spanish
forward Ferran Torres posted a video of himself on Twitter doing light physical
work at the training facility of his hometown club, Valencia. Torres had spent
Christmas in a gentle form of limbo, waiting for his former club, Manchester
City, to agree to sell him to Barcelona.

By Dec 26, things had
moved sufficiently that Torres wanted to let his followers know a move was
imminent. “Getting ready at home … Valencia,” he wrote in a message posted
alongside the video. And then, on a new line, a single phrase: “Here We Go!”

Those three words
were intended as the digital transfer market’s equivalent to white smoke
billowing from a chimney. They have come to mean that a deal is not just close,
but completed. And they are indisputably Romano’s: They are his seal of
approval, his calling card, what he refers to with just a hint of regret as his
catchphrase.

That, more than the
numbers of followers Romano has accrued, is the best gauge of his influence.
Increasingly, to players, as well as fans, a transfer has not happened until it
bears Romano’s imprimatur. (“Here We Go” is, in some cases, now used as a noun:
Correspondents now regularly ask Romano if he is in a position to “give the
here we go.”)

His power is now so
great that he has, not entirely intentionally, made the leap from being merely
a reporter covering football’s transfer market to something closer to a force
within it. And in doing so, he has blurred the line between journalist and influencer,
observer and participant.

THE SCOOP

The call that made
Romano’s career, in his telling, came entirely out of the blue. He had started
writing about football as a teenager in his hometown, Naples, composing stories
and firing them off, free of charge, to a variety of fairly niche Italian
football websites in the hope they might publish them.

He does not quite
know how an aspiring Italian agent in Barcelona got hold of his name, or his
phone number. “He was working at La Masia” — the famed Barcelona academy — “and
he wanted to become an agent,” Romano said last month. “He was hoping to
convince two young players to let him represent them, and he asked me if I
would write a profile of them.” The players were Gerard Deulofeu, a young
Spanish wing, and a prodigious teenage striker named Mauro Icardi.

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Romano wrote the
profile, the agent got the clients and the two stayed in touch. In the summer
of 2011, Romano broke the story that Icardi was leaving Barcelona for
Sampdoria. He refers to it proudly as his “first news,” but its impact was
limited: Icardi was an 18-year-old youth team player, after all. His arrival at
a team then struggling in Italy’s second division was hardly earth-shattering.

But in November 2013,
the agent called again. “He said I had helped him at the start of his career,
and now it was his turn to help me,” Romano said. Icardi, his source told him,
had agreed to move to Inter Milan the next summer. Six months before the deal
was officially announced, Romano published the news on an Inter Milan fan site.

“That was the time
everything changed,” he said. He left Naples for Milan, and the hardscrabble
world of freelance journalism for a job at Sky Sport Italia. The first story he
was sent to cover was, as it happens, Icardi’s physical at Inter. “That story
was part of my life.”

football, in general,
has long had an insatiable appetite for gossip and rumours and tittle-tattle
from the transfer market: In England, the nuggets of news appear in old copies
of long-defunct sports newspapers dating to 1930. Nowhere is the obsession
quite so deep-rooted, though, as in Italy.

“You have to remember
that, for a long time, we had four daily newspapers devoted to sport,” said
Enrico Mentana, a television presenter, director and producer who started his
career at one of them, Gazzetta dello Sport. His father, Franco, worked there;
he had been a celebrated correspondent, specialising in transfers.

For those newspapers,
Mentana said, transfer stories were “the only way to sell copies in the summer,
when there were not any games.” They were aided and abetted in turning player
trading into “a spectacle” by the presidents of the country’s biggest clubs.
“The owners were great industrialists, scions of great families,” he said. “For
them, attracting a big star from South America, say, was a chance to show their
greatness, their power, to give a gift to the people.”

By the time Romano
had made it to Sky Sport Italia, the doyen of the genre was Gianluca Di Marzio,
the channel’s star reporter, the host of the nightly — and unexpectedly
cerebral — show it broadcasts during football’s two transfer windows.

Romano helped Di
Marzio build, and fill, his personal website. In return, he learned the finer
points of his craft, particularly the value of the traditional shoe-leather
journalism that had long been deployed to harvest those precious hints and
whispers. “For years and years, I would go every day around the city,” Romano
said. “Restaurants, hotels, anywhere football people would meet.”

But while the methods
had endured, Romano had some intuitive sense that the landscape was changing.
He quickly grasped not only that social media could serve as both an outlet and
a source, but that he had an innate eye for which sort of content worked on
which kind of platforms.

“For example, I used
Instagram initially as a personal thing,” he said. “I would post a picture of a
nice sunset, a good dinner. But all the time, in the replies, people would ask
me about transfers. Nobody was interested in my life. I’m not a star. I am a
journalist, and a journalist is an intermediary.”

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His most significant
insight, though, was that there was no reason to be hidebound by borders. With
his replies swelled by interest from fans around the world, asking for updates
on teams in England, France and Spain, as well as Italy, he started to seek stories
away from home.

To Romano, the great
leap into the global football conversation came in 2020. Fernandes, a talented
Portuguese midfielder, had spent most of the previous summer being linked with
a move to Manchester United; Romano consistently played it down. A few months
later, though, the club made its move, and when Romano bestowed his customary
“here we go” on the deal, the reaction was “huge.”

He does not claim to
have had that story first: It had, after all, been bubbling for months, and had
been extensively reported in the weeks before it was completed. In his eyes,
though, speed is not where true value lies in a social media world, and
particularly in that portion of it devoted to football’s chaotic, contradictory
and often chimerical transfer market.

What followers want
more than anything, he said, is to know that what they are reading is true.
That is what he tries to provide. “I do not have a deadline to meet or a paper
to sell,” he said. “I write things when they are ready.”

In part, his
expanding influence — he has added 5 million social media followers in the past
18 months alone — can be attributed to his work ethic. When Romano is not
submitting transfer stories to The Guardian or Sky Sport, he is uploading them
to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, or he is talking about them on his
podcast or his Twitch channel or in his latest role, accepted last year, with
CBS Sports. He discusses them with one of the suite of club-specific podcasts
he finds time to grace with his presence as a guest, or replies to his
followers directly on social media. There is talk of a book, too. During
transfer windows, he said, he regularly does not go to bed until 5 a.m.

Whether it is
dedication to his trade or dedication to his brand, or neither — Romano has a
puppyish delight in talking about his passion — it has worked. Often, now, the
reach of the clubs and the player actually involved in any given transfer is
dwarfed by that of the person reporting it.

THE FINE LINE

Last summer, as the
Spanish team Valencia closed in on a deal to sign Marcos André, a Brazilian
striker who had spent the previous season playing for its La Liga rival Real
Valladolid, the club’s marketing and communications arm, VCF Media, was
commissioned with finding an unexpected, impactful way to announce it.

A transfer, after
all, is a chance for a club to attract attention, to win a few eyeballs and
perhaps gain a few new fans in what is now a global battle for engagement.
Valencia is not just competing with domestic rivals such as Villarreal or
Sevilla for that audience, but teams from Italy and Germany and England, too.

The problem, as far
as the club could tell, was that there was nothing new about the club’s
interest in signing Marcos André. There had been a run of stories hinting at
the move for weeks. To reach the broadest audience possible with its
confirmation, VCF Media decided to do something a little different.

Once the paperwork on
the deal had been completed, and the player had successfully passed his
physical, the club contacted Romano and, with the blessing of Borja Couce,
Marcos André’s agent, asked if he might like to be a part of the announcement.
He agreed, and filmed a short video to tease the deal. It concluded, of course,
with his catchphrase.

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The logic, for
Valencia, was simple. Romano has 6.5 million Twitter followers. The club has
1.3 million. In VCF Media’s eyes, he was a “tremendous influencer in the world
of football, a shortcut to a global audience,” as a club representative put it.
Romano was the point at which “sport and entertainment” converged.

Since then, others
have followed suit. Romano, a confessed fan of Watford, the on-again, off-again
Premier League team, featured alongside a host of players in the video to
launch the club’s new jersey last summer.

This month, Romano
was featured in videos for both Germany’s Augsburg and Major League football’s
Toronto FC, announcing the signings of Ricardo Pepi, a US forward, and Italian
playmaker Lorenzo Insigne. Sportfive, a marketing agency based in New York that
arranged the Augsburg announcement, did not respond to a request for comment as
to whether Romano had been paid.

Those appearances are
testament to Romano’s hybrid status. Ordinarily, European clubs prefer to keep
journalists of all stripes at arm’s length; the locker-room access
traditionally offered by America’s major leagues is anathema. They guard their
transfer plans with particular secrecy, fearing that a mistimed leak could
jeopardise a deal months in the making.

Romano, though, has
been embraced by every player in the market. Official club social media
accounts reference his catchphrase. He enjoys regular interactions with owners
and agents — a few days ago, Mohamed Salah’s agent, Ramy Abbas, told Romano,
unprompted, that he was “a little bored these days,” an apparent reference to
the stalemate over the Liverpool forward’s new contract — and even players themselves.

That renown is
professionally useful, of course. Romano’s fame has opened doors. “I remember a
sporting director called me last January,” Romano said. “I had always talked
about him a lot, and just like that, he called. He said he wanted to know the
boy who seemed to know everything.” Romano was, briefly, just a little
starstruck.

But those
relationships come with a risk, too. The same influence that makes Romano
valuable to clubs looking to gain access to his followers also makes him
vulnerable to those looking to exploit his reputation for reliability.

The global transfer
market is a $6 billion industry. Deals can be worth millions in commissions
alone, but they are fragile, unpredictable things. And one word, from someone
like Romano, can make or break them.

There is a danger, he
knows, in people giving him “their vision of the truth.”

“But then I do not
have a show that needs to be filled or a headline that has to be written,” he
said. He can wait until “the right moment” for all concerned. “A journalist
does not need to be the enemy,” as he put it.

That is how he sees
himself, even now, even with all of that impact and all of that reach. He
rejects the term “influencer,” but he crossed that particular Rubicon some time
ago. It is a fine line, though, the one that runs between observer and
participant, between inside and out. He has now crossed it. Even he will not be
able to say, not with any certainty, where he goes from here.

©2022 The New York
Times Company

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