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By John Helmer in Moscow

Dying of laughter isn’t the worst way to go.

In the ancient world, it befell to the Stoic philosopher Chrysippos to be contemplating one day the relationship between altruism and heroism. Into his viewfinder two donkeys appeared. It isn’t clear whether they started drinking wine from a cup Chrysippos had absent-mindedly left behind. Or whether he deliberately fed them with the drink. What happened next has been famous for 2,216 years. After imbibing, the donkeys started nibbling on a basket of figs Chrysippos had ordered for lunch. But at that sight, Chrysippos started to laugh; he couldn’t stop; and he died of the joke. To be sure, Chrysippos’s ticker was past 70 years old, and he may already have accelerated it fatally by beating his asses to the brew. But of one thing noone is in doubt – the wine, the donkeys, and the figs made a hilarious and fatal combination.

The history of Rome also has something to do with figs, for it was a fig-tree on the banks of the River Tiber that snared the basket containing the twins Romulus and Remus, who were floating away from their homicidal uncle; he was disposing of them, he thought, to save his inheritance. They were suckled by a she-wolf, according to legend. Then Romulus grew up to murder Remus, also for inheritance purposes.

What is left of this fun is portrayed on the shield of the Associazione Sportiva Roma, the Rome-based football team, whose fortunes have lately proved to be as diminishing as Remus’s, and for the same reason – it has been running out of money. For Franco Sensi, the Italian oil magnate, who had keep the team afloat on his riches, died a year ago. The shares of the publicly listed shareholding company are currently worth 92 Euro cents a share, for a total of €122 million in market capitalization. Before old Sensi died, leaving the club in charge of his daughter Rosella, the share was at its historical peak of €1.56, for a market cap of €207 million. Rosella had driven up the share price on speculation that George Soros would make a takeover. When that didn’t happen, and old Sensi died, the share price had nowhere to go but down.

The share price took off again this past April; peaked in June; and drifted down until in the late days of July, first days of August, when it was reported that the Russians would suckle the club back to prosperity. Around August 9, Italian newspapers and Forza-Roma, the club website, reported rumours that Mikhail Prokhorov was proposing to buy out the Sensi family stake for $250 million, and was promising another $80 million investment in the club. The share price equivalent for the offer, if Prokhorov was in fact making it, was €1.91. That was more than double the share price in the market – a premium of 136% over the July 31 value.

Why would Prokhorov be buying Roma? It seemed, he said, he wasn’t. The Italian press reported on August 9-10 that Prokhorov was denying his interest in buying either Roma, or the New Jersey Nets, the American basketball club. But now, six weeks later, Prokhorov has announced that he is going to build the Nets’s proposed new stadium, take control of the club franchise, and introduce high-technology basketball coaching to Russian children. So if the basketball half of what was denied in August turns out to be true in September, what about the football half?

An influential Russian sports businessman has his own interpretation of what has been happening. According to him, Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi mentioned Roma to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during one of their get-togethers when the two men were in Turkey on August 4-6. The official purpose of the Turkey meetings was the future supply of Russian natural gas to Turkey and Italy. But Berlusconi also told Putin he was concerned about the failing financial position of the football club, and asked him if he could help out.

Putin is logical and stoical in the best Chrysippos tradition. He has a sharp wit, and can laugh at asses without overdoing it. His moral doctrine has been adapted from one of Chrysippos’s missing books; there the master argued that altruism is a higher moral end than heroism, even if the greatest acts of altruism are rarely judged, in retrospect, to be heroic, and heroes rarely act out of altruistic motives. The Russian source claims that when Putin heard Berlusconi out on the subject of saving Roma, he contemplated the pantheon of self-regarding Russian asses, I mean heroes, who might be persuaded to put money on the table to save Roma. Putin thought of Prokhorov.

The Russian source says he is not certain this is exactly what happened. He is sure that Prokhorov had been considering how to ask Putin’s permission to buy the New Jersey Nets. He speculates that for Prokhorov, the idea of buying Roma wasn’t interesting. But if that were Putin’s price in exchange for permission to buy the Nets, then Prokhorov could go along with the term sheet for the double deal: $330 million in cash down and pledged money – more than twice what a reasonable man would pay for a football club in a faraway place — in exchange for a permit to spend $700 million on a loss-making basketball team in another faraway place.

Hold your sides for an instant, and ask yourself – are these donkeys biting at figs because they have inadvertently drunk too much wine?

The offices of Prime Minister Putin and Prime Minister Berlusconi were asked to say if the prime ministers have discussed football, Russian investment in Italian sports projects, or the Roma football club. In Moscow and in Rome, the prime ministers’ press offices have requested more time to reply.

The spokesman for Prokhorov, Igor Petrov, said he is not sure exactly when his man met the Russian Prime Minister most recently. He believes it was in mid-June, when they were at a well-known Moscow computer systems laboratory; but he acknowledges that perhaps they have met again since then. Regarding the Italian deal, Petrov said he cannot “add anything about Roma besides what has already been said — Prokhorov has denied being interested in buying it.”

If they are all telling the truth, the joke is on me for imagining such a tall tale. But if you believe it to be possible, and were already laughing, then what does that suggest about the future for Roman civilization?

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