In 1986, Kenneth Whipple, the Ford motor-company executive who oversaw an ill-fated attempt to take over Italian car maker Alfa Romeo, said: “We were warned about going into Italy. We were warned we should look out or we’d get skinned.”

In the end, Ford lost out to the “home-town advantages” of Italian auto giant FIAT, which still owns Alfa today. While Whipple never actually claimed that Ford had indeed been “skinned” during the aborted takeover attempt, there were plenty of others who came to exactly that conclusion.

The question of an American takeover of a valued piece of Italian socio-industrial jewellery has presented itself again with Compagnia Italpetroli SpA, the Sensi-family holding company which controls Serie A club Roma, beginning the formal process to sell the club. Debt-ridden Roma, who have been up for a sale essentially since a debt-for-equity swap with UniCredit Bank last year, attracted five binding offers: one American, one Italian, two Arab and one French.

Most commentators immediately identified three main candidates: a US consortium featuring Thomas DiBenedetto of Boston Red Sox and New England Sports Ventures (NESV), an Italian group led by health-clinic tycoon Angelo Angelucci, and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments fund.

Over the coming weeks, UniCredit, the Sensi family and advisor bank Rothschild are set to analyse the offers.

Media reports suggest that the DiBenedetto group – which has offered £100million to take control of Roma but which would leave UniCredit with a 40 per cent share – is in pole position, though NESV chairman Thomas Werner, whose company owns Liverpool, is on record as having said NESV is “not involved” and has “no interest” in purchasing the club.

If the DiBenedetto group does manage to buy out Roma, it will be succeeding where many before have not. Russian energy group Nafta Moskva (Roma), Hungarian-US financier George Soros (also Roma), Texan businessman Tim Barton (Bari) and Albanian petrol millionaire Rezart Taci (Bologna) are just some who have tried and – for different reasons – failed to buy Italian clubs in recent years.

There are many, however, who think that in these times of economic crisis a major foreign investment could be beneficial for Italian soccer. Current England manager and former Roma coach Fabio Capello told Italian radio: “For Roma to be run by Americans would be very important for Italian football. From what I’ve seen in England, the arrival of Arab and Russian investors has really helped English football grow. Financial resources are very important.”

Declining status
If anyone had any doubts about the declining international status of Italian football, they had only to look at this year’s FIFA Ballon D’Or awards. It was probably no surprise that not a single Italian player figured in the top 23 behind Lionel Messi, but the fact that only three of those – Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o and Maicon – play for Serie A clubs (all for Internazionale) says something about the current level of the Italian top division.

Italian commentators were outraged Sneijder finished only fourth and Inter’s ace goalscorer of their all-conquering season, Argentina striker Diego Milito, did not even make the final nominations.

Even if Sneijder and Milito clearly merit much respect, Italian indignation might be better directed at the intrinsic problems of the domestic game, with cash-strapped clubs, a lack of youth-development policies, outdated and fan-unfriendly stadia, and hooliganism being the most obvious.

Despite the recession, the January transfer window was relatively buoyant, perhaps thanks to the fact nearly all the clubs ensured whatever they spent on a new player was already covered by the sale and/or loan of another. Inevitably, the big three – Inter, Milan and Juventus – made most waves.

Having already picked up Antonio Cassano from Sampdoria, Milan signed Dutch midfielders Urby Emanuelson from Ajax and Mark Van Bommel from Bayern Munich. Juventus moved for Genoa striker Luca Toni, Wolfsburg defender Andrea Barzagli and, at the very last moment, Cagliari striker Alessandro Matri. Inter finally moved in the market, too, acquiring defender Andrea Ranocchia and Moroccan midfielder Housinne Kharja from Genoa, and Cesena’s Japanese defender Yuto Nagatomo. However, their purchase of Sampdoria striker Giampaolo Pazzini – for £11.2 million plus Frenchman Jonathan Biabiany – had the most immediate impact.

Signed in the final days of January, Pazzini quickly made his Inter debut in the second half of the home game with Palermo. Brought on by Brazilian coach Leonardo with his side 2-0 down, he turned the game around, scoring twice and winning a penalty, converted by Eto’o, for a thrilling 3-2 victory. Even if Inter might regret Pazzini being cup-tied for the Champions League, having already played in this season’s tournament for Sampdoria, he could well become a key figure in what may yet become the great Inter fightback.

With only in-form Udinese able to stop Leonardo’s winning run in his first eight games in charge, leaders Milan have more to fear from their cross-town rivals than any other team.

Inter, under Leonardo, have once more begun to look like the side that swept all before them last season. Stand by for a rare old Milanese tussle between now and May – with the second Milan derby, on the first weekend of April, already looking a key moment in the season.

Juventus, who are 13 points behind the leaders, have had a miserable 2011 so far. With games against both Inter and Milan to come, Juve could well be out of all important calculations by the beginning of March – a truly heretical thought for their once much-spoiled fans. But then again, a Roma club controlled by Americans also seems a heretical concept. Or is it?