Ornella Desirée Bellia is the Head of Professional Football at FIFA. With an impressive academic background, significant experience in Sports Law and knowledge of several languages, Ornella’s hard work, passion and skillset has guided her through an already impressive career path.
In this Jobs in Football interview, Ornella shares details of some of her experiences of working in the football industry, from navigating her way through a male-dominated environment, to balancing her full-time position with lecturing aspiring students.
This is a fantastic insight into the career of an industry professional operating at the highest level of football.
I wanted to work in football so that’s why I applied for a Masters in Sports Law and although, at Calcio Catania, I was hired as a lawyer, I was doing lots of other things. I was involved in many other areas: marketing, communications, assisting the CEO with the negotiations of the transfer of players, sponsorship contracts… At that time, the football industry didn’t have lots of people working for clubs, not like as it is today. Also, Calcio Catania was a mid-sized club in the South of Italy and was run as a family business so there were lots of factors involved. There were around 8-10 people running the club and I was often doing everything; I could be supporting the CEO in negotiations one minute but then picking up the phone on reception when the assistant wasn’t there the next.
While my official title was Head of Legal Affairs, in reality, I was managing a lot.
No, I didn’t want to study law but I applied because I hated numbers and I thought, ‘Okay, this is a course with no numbers!’ Since then, I have realised it’s not really what I want to do, although it has taken me 10 years to get out of the legal area, not just now with my job at FIFA, but previously with my job with the European Leagues too; I have changed my area of expertise and interest.
Studying law was not the target for me and I guess I did it for a stupid reason really! Honestly, I just didn’t want to study mathematics or see any numbers. What is incredible now though – after studying an MBA for a couple of years at the Real Madrid University - I love numbers! I love finance and I have gained the best grades in finance. It is strange I know.
I realised that I am good in sharing knowledge and experiences and it is something that makes me feel happy; it’s a way for me to learn from the students and for me to share with them what I have learnt so far. What I always try to do in my lectures is to not just give them information on sports law or financial aspects in football, but also give them practical advice about how they can pursue a career in football; how they can build a good reputation in football because it is not that easy to do.
I always push my students to think big, dream big and to believe in themselves; to not give up. As a lecturer or guest speaker, it would be easy to turn up and just teach them, but what they really need is encouragement about what’s next for them, and how they can deal with the reality of professional life. I make sure I share my failures with them too because I have been rejected for jobs. I always tell them not to take the rejection personally, to continue to work hard, to not give up and the right opportunity will come along. Life is not easy and you have to struggle before you get to where you want to be.
Teaching is something I do for personal reasons; I like to help others and be generous with my time. A few years ago, I was on the other side of the classroom, and I remember the feeling of uncertainty, not knowing if I would have a career and be successful, thinking, ‘Am I wasting my time, my energy and my money?’ So I believe it is important to encourage and empower other people.
I spend a lot of hours preparing the lectures and when I’ve finished, I always think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore because it takes me so long to put everything together; I am putting slides together on my weekends.’ Then when I finish the lectures I think, ‘I feel so well and I am so happy I can help them and share my experience…the preparation is worth it.’
I was in charge, along with 11 other judges, to oversee the international transfers of minor players, so players under the age of 18; I would review their applications.
It was a complex role and when I joined FIFA, I couldn’t have my position as a judge anymore, (judges have to be independent and therefore FIFA employees cannot fulfil this role). It was a huge responsibility
I have enjoyed every single job and every job has been an important part of my professional pathway too. I think the role I have now at FIFA (Head of Professional Football) is a highlight. I really enjoy what I am doing and I am happy to have a role where I can make a positive impact in an industry where it is often difficult to do that.
I will start with the most difficult, and that is being a woman amongst many men, along with being in tough negotiations with difficult people.
Since 2016, FIFA has changed the governance structure and now its decision-making process is quite complex. Every decision that is taken at FIFA, on any regulatory aspect, such as all the changes to the transfer system, the changes to the regulations regarding agents, loans etc., must be negotiated with all of the stakeholders. This means negotiations include clubs, players, leagues and their respective associations and representatives. I am involved in all of the negotiation meetings with these stakeholders and it is very difficult to get everybody to agree. Each party has their own interest and their interests are very different so it is extremely hard to find common ground and find solutions that everyone is comfortable with. In addition, being a woman, there can be resistance to following what a woman says and for them to listen.
I remember in my first job in a football club, someone from management was always saying to me, “You’re a woman, you don’t understand.” And he repeated this so much to me that in the end I decided to quit. I would be explaining to him about certain clauses that were against the regulations and he wouldn’t listen and he would tell me, “You’re young, you’re a lady, you don’t know how football works.” He would not listen to me.
I also have a story about a very famous football agent… After I had helped him with the negotiation of a transfer of a very important football player to the MLS, he said to me, “You know what, you have done a great job but I will tell you now, nobody will take you seriously in football so I believe it is better for you to look for a job as a presenter.”
So yes, that’s the difficult part of the job, knowing you have to work harder to be taken seriously as a woman in football. Now of course, the situation for me has completely changed because with the experience and reputation I have built, I don’t experience these situations anymore. But it was the story of my life for some time! I always say that I am going to write a book one day.
It’s been challenging but I believe as women, we have such a great opportunity too. For example, right now, you hear lots of people saying, ‘We need women in football and we need them in leadership positions’ so it just might give us an advantage, being a woman. At the same time, let’s not do it just to fill a quota – that is something I don’t like. Let’s get the right people for all roles, regardless of if they are a man or a woman; let’s just get people who are competent to do the job!
Of course! Nowadays, he calls me all the time and asks me for help. He has said to me, “Okay, I recognise I was wrong and I am so glad you didn’t listen to me; you disregarded what I said.”
As Head of Professional Football, I am in charge, not only of the relationship between all the stakeholders, which is a nice part of my role – I like PR and managing relationships – but at the same time, I am also in charge of developing projects that aim to professionalise football all around the world. I have been able to launch several projects and it is really enjoyable to bring a project to life, which isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially in a large organisation.
I enjoyed developing the Professionalisation Project because that is in line with FIFA’s vision of making football truly global and creating a sustainable football ecosystem, not just having a few clubs who are able to compete at the highest level. We want 50 clubs from all around the world who are able to dream big and compete at the highest level. With that vision in mind – the vision of our President Gianni Infantino – we have developed several projects, such as the Diploma in Club Management, which is a master programme for senior club executives from clubs all around the world. We want to share knowledge and create a platform for executives to learn best practice from elite clubs, and implement those practices in their own clubs in order to be able to compete at the highest level. They can learn to implement a more sustainable business model and develop their digital or commercial strategy. So yes, this is the most enjoyable part of my current role, working on projects to make a positive impact.
It is super, super important and it is something I always do. I said previously, that when I give lectures, I always try to encourage the students and I do this more for the female students as I believe, what we need in football, is more creativity and people thinking outside of the box. I believe women have the ability to do that, so that’s why it is important to promote women.
At the same time, I struggle to find other women to work within the industry. For example, it was really difficult for us to select women for the Diploma in Club Management. We wanted to allocate at least 40% of the positions available to women but in reality, there were no women applying! That’s a big challenge because even though you want to empower women, sometimes they are overpowered by men.
Exactly! We always believe we are not good enough. I am sure there were many women who looked at the Diploma and immediately thought, ‘This is too much for me.’ But it’s not too much for them! It is a big mistake to think like that. Men are much more confident than women and that’s a pity.
I have had quite a few, for example, in my job at Calcio Catania, which was challenging because of the attitude of the leadership at that time, and the “old mentality” of the whole environment in Italy. I had worked hard to get to the position I was in and I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable so I quit my job and moved to London to work in a law firm. It wasn’t anything to do with football, although they were setting up the Sports Law Department at the time. I didn’t want anything to do with football after that experience though.
However, I soon realised I was giving up on my dream and allowing other people to influence and negatively impact my career, my future. I knew I needed to be stronger than that so I decided to pursue my dream again and find my place in football. I didn’t want to work in Italy though so I looked for another job on an international level.
My other challenge is related to my health. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer and it was tough being 32 years old, in my dream job and finally happy, having spent most of my life studying and working hard. I had skipped social parts of my life, such as parties and holidays because I just wanted to study. Finally, I was enjoying my life and the results of my hard work and I was confronted with this personal challenge. But my professional life was very important because it kept me going; it kept me strong. I worked even more during this time and it made me happy, distracting me from the problem I had and the treatment I was receiving.
Unfortunately, I have since relapsed. From this second experience, I am learning something different to before; I am focusing on me. I am changing the way I work, delegating more to my team and reducing my stress. I have reacted differently to the situation this time, although both reactions have had an impact on my professional life one way or another.
My working life was not sustainable and sometimes I think I became sick because I was working too much and not listening to my body. So I limit the number of meetings I have each day and I make time for my wellbeing. I take some time to cook, to exercise, meditate and look after myself. I am re-establishing my priorities to take care of me.
In March 2020, when all of the football competitions were suspended, we had so much work on the table because we were trying to find solutions for many unexpected problems. We started a lot of negotiation meetings with the players’ union, the club associations and the league association to find a solution. The clubs were arguing that their revenues were going down because the suspension of the league meant their stadiums were not open, but the players were saying, ‘Yes but we have a contract and we need to respect the contract.’ So it was difficult to find common ground but, in the end, we were able to create guidelines for the whole of the football community. Those guidelines have been very helpful for clubs, players, leagues etc., to have principles to follow, that have been sanctioned by FIFA, and based on the negotiations between all stakeholders.
At the same time as having all the unexpected work, we couldn’t travel or commute so that created more time to just be at the computer, and that’s where I had creative ideas. Many projects, such as the Professional Football Landscape or the Diploma in Club Management, are a result of the lockdown because we all had time to think and be creative.
I really enjoy studying; I still study. I think it is an important part of professional life for everyone and now that I love numbers, I would like to do a Masters in Finance. This will help me in the new areas I am focusing on, the finance and economic aspects of football.
No, for me it is the opposite.
I love this question! Working in the football industry is not easy because firstly, you have to get yourself into the market and the barriers to do that are high. So the advice I would give is, to apply for a Masters degree because it gives you the opportunity to not only learn more, but it will also give you the network to meet the right people who can help you get to where you want to be.
I also think it is important to learn languages because football is a globalised industry so speaking more languages is key. I decided to study Spanish and Portuguese because I felt like it would give me an advantage and indeed, it has done so. It’s an ice breaker, to start a conversation in the native language of the person you are communicating with and you can also develop a more personal connection with them too. There are a lot of countries in the world that speak Spanish so I believe it is an important language in football, although it is better to speak as many languages as you can.
Also, the advice I always give is to believe in yourself, work hard and don’t give up. It might be difficult to get to the job you want, but, in the end, if you work hard, keep trying and don’t give up, you will find the right opportunity.
Lastly, we have to be generous. I always say I am lucky but in reality, it is not just luck because I have built up a network of people just through helping them or making connections between people in football. And I’ve not done this for something in return, for any compensation, but I like to be generous and, in the end, it has helped me. I didn’t know it at the time but looking back, I realise how important it was to be like that. People appreciate your genuine helpfulness and you find that they will help you back. Football is a small community.
Empathy is key; you have to have this, not just in football, but in life.
Yes. The most successful people in football I have ever met are distinguished because they are humble and have empathy. I have realised that the most successful people are those that have emotional intelligence.
Yes, it is really important.
Actually, recently I have been Co-Editor of a book called ‘Transfer of Football Players’ and it is almost 1,000 pages! This has been another highlight too. I didn’t write the book but I have been coordinating all of the authors and revising all of the pieces for the book too. But the most important thing, is that we have sold the book over the last 10 months and generated around 10,000 euros so far, which has been donated to a charity working with children with cancer. That’s why it is a highlight for me because it is helping the charity – it feels really nice. It is also the most important book I have been a part of too.
I am very happy in the job I have and super satisfied; I am enjoying what I’m doing. But if I look 10 years into the future, I see myself in a football club because that’s where I started and so it is where I want to finally end up. I like the team spirit in a football club, the adrenaline of needing to win matches, the weekly challenges… It is something special and it makes me feel good to be a part of it. I miss that feeling.
Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.