On Oct. 21, Venezia F.C., the home soccer—or calcio—club for Venice, Italy, beat Florence’s Empoli F.C. 1-0 to move into a tie for first place in Serie B, the second-highest division in the Italian soccer league system after the world famous Serie A.
While this might not mean much for some, it means everything for John Goldman, a longtime partner at New York’s Herrick Feinstein and co-chair of its vaunted sports law practice, who sits on the board of directors for Venezia. Last month Goldman left Herrick after 30 years at the firm to start his own business consultancy and devote his attention to Venezia.
“I’m a sports guy,” Goldman joked. “So being part of the ownership group of a team that’s risen literally from the ashes in the last two years and is now sitting in first place in Serie B is just great.”
Goldman had spent his entire legal career at Herrick, which he joined in 1987. Over his three decades there, Goldman worked on a number of corporate and litigation matters in the sports, corporate and real estate spaces. But his entrance into Italian soccer management came as a result of his representation and friendship with Joseph Tacopina, a prominent New York litigator and a name partner at Tacopina & Seigel.
Tacopina, known by some as the “Rocky Balboa of criminal defense,” has represented a number of high-profile clients, including former New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez. Goldman and Herrick were tapped as outside counsel when Tacopina, an Italian-American, joined a U.S. consortium that purchased storied Italian soccer club and Serie A mainstay A.S. Roma in 2011.
Initially vice chairman of the team’s board of directors, Tacopina eventually transitioned to a position on the board before exiting A.S. Roma in early September 2014. Later that month, Tacopina purchased Bologna F.C. 1909 and in his one season as team president was able to help the northern Italian club climb from Serie B to the top flight of Italian soccer.
“He is unbelievable at being the face of the franchise, at driving passion,” Goldman said of Tacopina. “I mean he went into Bologna and completely changed the attitude of the people.”
However, Tacopina’s tenure at Bologna lasted only 11 months before he left the team following a rift with Canadian co-owner Joey Saputo, who also controls Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact. Tacopina, who sued Saputo, turned to Goldman and Herrick to negotiate his exit from Bologna two years ago this month. Within 20 days, the former legal television personality had a deal to acquire the heavily indebted Venezia.
“When we went to Venice it was a fourth division team [Serie D] playing in one of the most important cities on the planet,” said Goldman, who following the completion of the purchase took a director position on the board of the soccer club, which was founded in 1906. “Our view was that every great city in Europe had at least one … world-class caliber football club. Venice needed to have one and we were going to make that happen.”
Venezia, which since Oct. 21 has slipped to fifth place in the Serie B standings, has not won a notable title since 1941 and was exiting its third bankruptcy at the time of Tacopina’s purchase in 2015. But the team’s new owners were confident in their odds.
“Little did we know when we said that that no team in Italian football history in 60 years has done that, but we did it,” Goldman said.
By the end of the 2015-16 season, Venezia was promoted to Serie C, or Lega Pro. Ahead of the 2016-17 season, the team hired a new manager in Filippo Inzaghi, a retired former star at Serie A stalwarts A.C. Milan and Juventus F.C. The addition of Inzaghi was followed by another championship win and promotion to Serie B.
All of these changes, as well as a new stadium being planned to replace Venezia’s outdated home ground, the 7,450-seat Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, are a part of Tacopina and Goldman’s mission to turn the club into a global brand that could be easily recognizable by any of the millions of tourists that pour through Venice each year.
“It’s an amazing city that has a tremendous tourist component to it, which [should] help us be able to build a global brand around our team,” said Goldman, who still mostly resides stateside in Connecticut. “That was part of what caused me to kind of pull the plug on being a full-time lawyer at a law firm.”
While Goldman has a strong affinity for Herrick, his former colleagues at the firm and the practice of law, it was the changing face of the practice of law that made him re-evaluate his career path and ultimately was one of the factors that led to him leaving Herrick.
“I think that I was incredibly lucky to grow up at a place like Herrick and the people who I learned from when I was a young lawyer were terrific lawyers, but they were also really, really good mentors,” Goldman said. “[But] I think that the profession has moved away from that sort of attitude for younger people to one that is more like, ‘Well you know they’re fungible, they can come and go,’ [and] it’s all about money.”
This alleged attitude, Goldman said, was something he found he no longer wanted for himself. So like others burned out with Big Law, Goldman left Herrick to focus on Venezia and formed his own shop called JRG Business Solutions Corp., which he said he will use to provide business consulting services and work with families and businesses in divorce disputes.
“I don’t ever want to bill by the hour again,” Goldman said. “I want to actually get compensated for successfully helping a client do what they want to do rather than just spinning the wheel.”
Goldman’s main concern at the moment is on building out the Venezia brand and keeping his and Tacopina’s promises to their club’s faithful.
“Right now the people of Venice and the global fans of our football club are counting on us to build this team and get to Serie A,” said Goldman, noting that success in Italy’s top soccer division could yield a spot in the coveted UEFA Champions League. “That’s our mission.”