Juventus must fight the right fight
Fresh from completing an undefeated title-winning campaign, Juventus seemed to have finally put the horrors of 2006 and the Calciopoli scandal behind them. The club is under a completely new management structure, starting with president Andrea Agnelli - son of Umberto and nephew of the iconic Gianni - through to director general Beppe Marotta and ultimately ending with coach Antonio Conte, separating themselves further still from the murky behaviour of Luciano Moggi and his cohorts.
Always respected but widely disliked, the Bianconeri even managed to win over many long-term enemies thanks to the wonderful new playing style implemented by their former captain. Conte showed incredible tactical intelligence and flexibility throughout the victorious campaign, building a thrilling high-tempo side which choked opponents with relentless pressing before launching into a slick passing game in a side built around the brilliance of Andrea Pirlo.
They also made a superb start to the summer transfer campaign, offloading the unwanted duo of Eljero Elia and Milos Krasic, while bringing in talented midfield pair Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla from Udinese as well as experienced defender Lucio following his release from Inter.
Then, just when it seemed everything in Turin was perfect, Juventus found themselves in the middle of yet another match-fixing scandal. This time there would be no grand puppeteer at the club who, despite the perception, are completely innocent of any involvement this time around. However, due to their actions before joining Juve, a number of key figures found themselves caught in the middle of the latest uncovering of wrong-doing.
Midfielder Simone Pepe, Italian international Leonardo Bonucci and Conte himself were all implicated by the testimonies of players caught by authorities and, despite protesting their innocence, the trio were called to face charges by the Italian FA panel.
Conte's case in particular became cause for concern after he was charged with failure to report a suspected case of match-fixing while coach of Siena in Serie B. Then Filippo Carrobbio, one of Conte's former players at the Tuscan club who was found guilty and banned for two years, told the prosecutors that Conte had told his players that the result of a fixture against Novara was 'already decided'.
The coach vehemently denied this, as well as the original charge against him but rather than face a lengthy ban, he accepted a plea-bargain deal offered by prosecutor Stefano Palazzi. That would see him face a three month touchline suspension and, with one month (August) almost entirely irrelevant, he would have returned on November 1st. The FIGC panel however, to the surprise of almost everyone, rejected the deal of their own chief prosecutor, deeming it to be insufficient punishment for the alleged violations.
Bonucci, Pepe and Angelo Alessio - Conte's assistant at both Juventus and Siena - also refused to plea-bargain, deeming their actions to be entirely innocent despite testimony from former team-mate Andrea Masiello that they were involved. Bonucci appeared to strengthen his case when one of the conversations the pair were supposed to have had on the team bus was while the defender was international duty.
The difficulty for all those implicated comes from the incredible fact that the Italian sporting justice system, because of the history of fixed matches on the peninsula, shifts burden of proof onto the accused, viewing them as guilty until proven innocent. Things looked bleak for the foursome when Cristian Stellini, now a member of Conte's coaching staff at Juventus, was found guilty of being involved in fixing matches when he was a player at Bari in 2009-10. The panel gave him a 30-month ban and he immediately resigned from his position with the Turin club, stating a desire to "dedicate all my time and efforts to clearing my name" as the motivating factor.
Then, on Friday, August 10, came the final verdicts for the other defendants. Conte was, as had been widely reported, handed a ten-month ban, effectively ruling him out for the entire season. The testimony of Carrobbio had been ignored and he was found guilty of failing to report the two fixed games, effectively rendering the 23 other players' testimony that he said nothing, irrelevant. Alessio was given eight months but Pepe and Bonucci were acquitted of all charges after evidence against them was thrown out and discounted.
Other clubs were dealt with much more harshly with Lecce and Grosseto actually relegated from Serie B for their involvement while Siena will start the new Serie A season with minus six points, an identical situation to that in which Atalanta found themselves ahead of the last campaign. All parties found guilty have five days to appeal against the rulings and with Conte almost certain to face a ban longer than that intial three months even after those appeals have been heard, Massimo Carrera - already a member of the coaching staff - is likely to sit on the bench with goalkeeping coach Claudio Filippo acting as assistant while Conte will continue to train the team between matches.
Almost immediately after the announcement, Juventus released a statement - via the official club website - intimating Conte and Alessio would certainly be appealing in an effort to "affirm the falsehood of the alleged facts". That may prove difficult and what remains clear are the deep flaws in an environment where someone accused of match-fixing - or indeed any other act which violates sporting rules - can point the finger at a bigger name to reduce their own sentence. How do you prove you did not say something in a private conversation in order to clear your name?
These trials have undoubtedly ended with mixed results for Juventus, yet the statement seemed to see the club finally act with clarity and maturity, looking beyond the pettiness that had previously surrounded such announcements. Rather than bemoaning unfair treatment, perceived injustice or partaking in the peninsula's continued love of a conspiracy theory, Andrea Agnelli and his family, his club, must not just pull up the drawbridge and retreat as their predecessors did six years ago.
The FIGC's sporting justice set up, like much of Italy's legal system, is archaic and rallies vehemently against change but Juve and others must ensure it does, for only then will justice truly be seen to be swift and righteous, free of vendetta or revenge.
Juventus and her fans have been increasingly angry at events throughout these trials but that frustration - and the political weight of one of Italy's biggest clubs - must, once the case finally closes, be directed at changing that system for the benefit of everyone.