Fabrizio Ravanelli was affectionately known as the ‘Penna Bianca’ or the ‘White Feather’. A jovial athletic man from Perugia in Umbria he first came to the attention of British audiences thanks to his trademark goal celebrations at Juventus in the mid 1990’s.
Light hearted appearances on the now legendary Saturday morning Gazzetta Football Italia Channel 4 show alongside host James Richardson led to widespread fame for a man who had a comical personality behind the goals.
Ravanelli’s hair continued a long family trait of prematurely whitened hair; he had been grey haired since the age of 14. This early predicament was perhaps though a blessing given the unfortunate set of circumstances that befell him during a short spell at Dens Park with Scottish club Dundee FC.
Long before Ravanelli arrived on the doorsteps of Dens Park a foreign player revolution had been taking shape. Thanks to the efforts of the Italians Dario and Ivano Bonetti the likes of goalkeeper Julian Speroni and Claudio Caniggia had arrived from Argentina creating excitement in Dundee not seen since the early 1960’s.
Back in the era of the Beatles Dundee had been a top European Cup side even making it to the 1963 European Cup semi final against AC Milan. Only a star studded Milan side complete with illustrious names like Altafini, Maldini, Gianna Rivera and Trapattoni had prevented the dark blues from reaching the final.
But by 2003 the heyday of European football had been long forgotten amongst Dundee fans as it struggled to find a firm foothold in the top tier of Scottish football. During the 1980’s inner city rivals Dundee United had overtaken Dundee as the number one side on Tayside with the Tannadice Park side even reaching a European Cup semi-final themselves in 1984 against AS Roma.
While the Bonetti brothers had led the way in bringing the name of Dundee FC to the fore again in Scotland the pair were eventually sacked in 2002 after a string of disappointing results. Despite efforts at spreading the club brand overseas – even into going into the Chinese market with the signing of China captain Fan Zhiyi – the pair failed to bring success to Dens Park.
In place of the Italian siblings came Jim Duffy one of Scottish football’s more homely figures and a man who had himself enjoyed stints as a player at the club. Like the man who brought Ravanelli to Derby County Jim Smith, Duffy was Dundee’s very own bald eagle.
Known as the ‘City of Discovery’ thanks to the ship of Captain Scott that rests on its riverside, Dundee had been an early forerunner in the import of foreign players. While many in the Dundee United hall of fame have roots in Scandic nations such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden it was not until the arrival of the Dane Morten Wieghorst in 1992 that Dundee really started to branch out into making foreign signings.
The arrival at Dundee FC ten years later of an Italian by the name of Ravanelli had come via famous playing stints at Middlesborough and Derby County. At both clubs the post Juventus brand of ‘Ravanellism’ had seen the grey haired one become a legendary figure amongst Rams and ‘Boro fans.
Ravanelli had not been the first successful Italian at Derby. Stefano Eranio had become a Rams club legend thanks a stint in the 1990’s. But the Grey haired Italian had continued on the goalscoring trail at Pride Park but failed to prevent the club being relegated in 2002.
How a move north to Scottish football came about for such a high profile footballer – then a 34 year old – is a complex story but much of the immediate deal brokering had been done by his former Derby County teammate Scottish International Craig Burley. Midfielder Burley, in talks with new manager Jim Duffy, somehow persuaded Ravanelli of the Tayside club’s future ambitions and a two year playing deal was struck.
But behind the scenes at Dundee was another man whose role in the arrival cannot be underestimated – the rather more obscure figure and then club director Giovanni Di Stefano.
An Anglo-Italian lawyer, Di Stefano had first hit the headlines in 1999 with a move to buy a stakeholding in the Dens Park club. But this first bid eventually floundered amid a rash of bad publicity and false financial promises.
The main force of outcry had focused upon Di Stefano’s claims to represent Serbian paramilitary chief and warlord Željko Ražnatović or Arkan. Only Arkan’s assassination in a hotel lobby during the early part of 2000 had prevented a trial going ahead.
Di Stefano’s association with Arkan had come through a mutual footballing share in 1997 Yugoslav Champions FK Obilic and it was this footballing credential on his CV, alongside legal acumen, that persuaded the Dundee board to accept him onto the Dundee board of directors.
Di Stefano immediately made numerous promises to invest money in the Dundee playing squad and utilise his numerous contacts in European football to attract high profile players. However, Di Stefano himself never divulged actual figures or indeed his contacts and instead called his investment in Dundee a ‘private matter’.
Di Stefano joined the Dundee board in August 2003 and only one month later in walked the grey haired Ravanelli to play football for the Dark Blues. For many Dundee fans it was a big prestigious signing and one big ‘poke in the eye’ for eternal city rivals Dundee United – at least in terms of local bragging rights.
But behind the scenes at Dundee trouble was brewing financially and the size of Ravanelli’s contract (said to be worth £250,000 per annum) weighed heavily on club finances. It was also clear the former Juventus striker at 34 was a shadow of his former self in terms of match fitness.
Come October 2003 rumours of Dundee’s impending doom was widespread and in November of 2003 those fears became a reality as the club entered administration. Huge debts of £20 million hung heavy around the clubs neck. Almost immediately Di Stefano questioned the wisdom of administration but soon some 25 players were trooping out of Dens Park with belongings in a black rubbish bags having had lucrative contracts terminated.
Dundee as a club were said to be losing £100,000 a week.
Unsurprisingly one of the first to go from Dens Park was the highest earner Fabrizio Ravanelli not 3 months into his contract. Alongside the Georgian Nemsadze, Caballero and Craig Burley the man they called the white feather withered off to pastures new after only a mere 5 appearances in a Dark blue Dundee shirt.
Ravanelli for his part talked of false promises and sadness yet remained pragmatic on hearing his fate:
“When I joined Dundee I was told the club was healthy but….a different story was revealed and the club has gone into administration. Considering I have one of the highest contracts I assumed that I would be one of the players leaving the club.“
The tale of Fabrizio Ravanelli at Dundee is an often long forgotten one considering his high profile goalscoring adventures at ‘Boro and Derby County. His goals at Dundee were thin on the ground but this is hardly surprising considering his levels of match fitness and appearance record.
Despite the devastation of administration and the club almost going out of business many Dundee fans look fondly back upon the memory of Ravanelli in a Dundee shirt. One appearance against Dundee United went by almost silently but it is somewhat a case of ‘what might have been’ considering he scored a stunning hat-trick against Clyde in the Scottish League cup tie on 29th October 2003.
Ravanelli is then still held in some esteem in the history books of Dundee but the same cannot be said for one of the chief figures who brought him to Dens Park – Giovanni Di Stefano.
In January 2004 he resigned from the Dundee board of directors.
Di Stefano is said to have made part of his fortune from importing videos from Hong Kong and the tale of Giovanni Di Stefano and Dundee is a sorry one. Di Stefano is said to have counted Saddam Hussein and the Serbian warlord Arkan as friends, and this is at a time long before Facebook friends. Those he professed an admiration for included fallen Italian dictator Benito Mussolini whilst he is even said to have had Harold Shipman as one of his clients.
But by January 2004 Di Stefano he had no friends at Dens Park as the club recoiled in horror from the false hopes he brought.
Fabrizio Ravanelli has talked fondly about his short spell at Dundee and went onto enjoy coaching at Juventus and in France. Off the field his reputation remained intact and he even into his late thirties was earning money as a catwalk male model thanks to his distinctive looks and athleticism.
During March 2013 Di Stefano was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment after being found guilty of 27 charges relating to deception, fraud and money laundering between the years 2001 and 2011. That many of the charges related to tricking people into thinking he was a ‘bona fide legal professional’ leaves many Dundee fans still remembering the time one Fabrizio Ravanelli came to Dens Park.
See all our images from Dundee’s Dens Park here soon.