Inside rise of Como as Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry support exciting new project
With former Chelsea captain Dennis Wise in charge of all major decisions, the club from a town more famous for its lake and George Clooney’s villa are working on a project with the end game of making them a serious player in Italy’s top-flight
For three years Dennis Wise was happily working away from the spotlight.
Given a clean slate to build a club, the former Chelsea captain was revelling in the freedom. He had elevated Como into Serie B and, gradually, plans were being put in place for the club to return to Italy’s top flight for the first time since 2003.
Then Cesc Fabregas arrived at the start of August and, overnight, there was global attention on Como for reasons beyond the lake and George Clooney’s villa. “I don’t want the attention,” Wise says. “But unfortunately there’s a stage where you need to go with the flow. I still try to stay away from it. It’s not about me, it’s about the club. I’m not interested in that. I don’t want the interest.”
That is easier said than done when he is navigating one of the most interesting projects in European football. It is not hard to have interest piqued when Thierry Henry was unveiled as their latest shareholder earlier this week and key figures in the ownership group are open to setting targets such as top-flight football and a new stadium by 2025 with the club kicking on from there to become a globally-recognised brand.
But first, how on earth did Wise end up here?
The story of how it all came about is bordering on accidental. Como had gone bankrupt in 2017 and Indonesia’s richest family, worth an estimated $40bn, spotted an opportunity to purchase a club that could become the home for young southeast Asian players to develop in Europe.
The Djarum group, who had initially made their money in tobacco but now own more than 100 businesses from banking to online streaming, had already set up an academy in Loughborough, which Wise was helping to run with the London-based Mirwan Suwarso.
Except it was not until after they won the auction that Djarum realised that Italian law prohibited non-EU players from playing without special permits.
So Suwarso brought Wise in three and a half years ago and offered a blank canvas with a sensible budget to invest.
“Mirwan basically bought a badge,” Wise says. “It was about creating something from the start. That was the important factor for me. Nobody was poking their nose in. I was able to be in charge of the whole thing, oversee and develop it.
“We bought back the academy which had been outsourced, we’ve bought a training ground that is almost ready, I’m in the process of agreeing a 99-year lease on the stadium, which is owned by the local authorities, and we’re going to knock it down.”
Cesc Fabregas made his Como debut, a first match in more than 11 months, in the 1-0 defeat to Brescia on Monday night
There is still a lot of work to do. Phase one of the training ground – a plot of land on the market for €2.5m but eventually costing €1m – should be completed in a few weeks and there are plans to bulldoze the entire Stadio Giuseppe-Sinigaglia apart from the perimeter wall of the main stand, which is a protected historical monument.
Last season the first-team squad had 14 players on loan, a figure now trimmed to three. And one of those is the reason Fabregas and Henry have come on board as shareholders.
Wise was keen on bringing defender Luis Binks, a product of Tottenham ’s academy, in for the season from Bologna and as the deal neared completion the club president asked agent Darren Dein if he knew of any creative midfielders available.
“Darren said, ‘Hear me out, what about Cesc?’” Wise explains, laughing as if still in disbelief. “‘Ok, right, yes please. What do we have to do?’ Darren got me on a Zoom with Cesc to explain the project. After I sold it, he wanted to be part of it.
“It’s not often you have a World Cup winner but a humble guy and he has loads of questions about the project, who wants to learn and be part of it long-term. I was open to a lot of suggestions and we spent an hour chatting. It was great.
“An hour later I had another call with a player. I won’t name him to disrespect him but he played in the Premier League and is now in the Championship. But he didn’t come on the call. It was his agent and his first question was how much are you going to pay him.
“First of all the player should be on the call. He wants three years, he’s not getting it. I killed the deal in two minutes. If it’s about money, no. It’s about if you want to come here and understand where the club wants to go.”
Fabregas evidently did, adding in the shareholding as both business interest and long-term commitment. “I felt it was a fantastic project for me to become involved in,” the former Arsenal and Chelsea star says. “It allows me to play my last years as a footballer but allows me to prepare for my coaching career and invest in the vision to take the club forward. I’m very lucky to be part of it. I’ve grabbed it with two hands.”
Cesc Fabregas of Como 1907 looks on during the Serie A match between Como 1907 and Brescia at Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia on August 29.
Cesc Fabregas has added another sprinkling of stardust to Como
The 35-year-old is “in the process” of doing his coaching badges and it is tempting to wonder if the head coach’s seat will eventually have his name on it. But for now he is determined to enjoy his final years on the pitch, rediscovering the thrill of playing after a “miserable” time at Monaco last season.
Henry, meanwhile, came on board after hearing about Fabregas’s move. He too is represented by Dein, the son of Arsenal’s former vice-chairman. But the former France striker says that he is happy to sit back and let Wise do his thing.
“I know it’s vital to stay in your lane,” he says. “When Dennis wants to know something or pick my brain I’ll be here but I’m not going to be the guy ‘hey what’s this?’ It’s important every time to know your role and not overstep.”
Henry was sold on the community aspect of the club’s plans following talks with Wise and Suwarso.
“You’ve heard it all before, ‘We’re trying to go back up, we’re going to have a new stadium, a new training facility, we’ll bring the academy back.’” the former Arsenal striker says, “Then they started speaking to me about the community part of it and I thought ‘Wow, this is a bit different to what you usually hear.’ That for me made the difference.”
Wise and Henry at a press conference in Com.
Beyond the infrastructure improvements, the club has set up a foundation to benefit locals in need. A nearby hospital received a six-figure donation during the darkest days of the pandemic and the club is helping to fund research into cancer treatments. All profits from this year’s kit will be given to local causes and they have promised not to bring out a new strip every summer to save fans money.
By 2025 there are plans to ensure every supplier is from the Lombardy region and Wise, consistently referencing that he prefers to speak through actions than words, recalls giving money to a local cinema that was facing closure.
The wholesome approach is neatly summed up by the hiring of a maintenance man a little more than a year ago.
“You’ll see Abi about,” Wise says, sitting in a room under the stadium’s main stand. “I saw him down the street, he was homeless, and he was cleaning the paths. It was spotless. I stopped, asked him what his name is. We needed a maintenance guy and I thought he’d be alright but I needed to find out a little more. So I said come to the stadium at 3pm.
“He thought I was crazy at first, didn’t know who I was and wasn’t sure if he should tell me his name. We checked him out, make sure that he’s OK. He’s now been here just over a year and he helps, always smiling.
“I don’t pre-judge someone who needs help. They are there [in difficulty] for a reason. He’s a very nice guy, very hard working. We need to help the place and this is what the owners want to do, involve the community. Building the stadium will give jobs to the community, grow the club.”
Patrick Cutrone signed from Wolves earlier this week
The opening three games of the season have been tricky, bringing just two points, but it is hard to suppress the feeling of excitement as Fabregas is joined by hometown striker Patrick Cutrone, signed earlier this week from Wolves, and the squad continues to strengthen. This afternoon they make a 14-hour round trip to Frosinone with a plan to give both new signings extended minutes.
Wise admits there were doubts from locals when the club came into Djarum’s hands but the fanbase has been won over because of visible signs of progress. “They’ve heard so much crap, they just want someone to do it,” he says. “What we’ve shown now means there’s a change of heart. We’re doing it.”
There is, however, a fear of growing too fast. Wise is happy to admit that reaching Serie A next season would be more than problematic. “What scares me is we end up getting to Serie A before the stadium,” he says. “We have a big problem if that happens. We’re pushing. We’ve set ourselves three years to get to that stage. But I need to see buildings knocked down.”