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Feb 10, 2006

The conspiracy mentality

I was at the Super Bowl in Detroit at the weekend, and I couldn't have been farther, in body and mind, from what was going on in the Serie A at the time.

I have covered football - the American version - for a while, after playing it in the mid-Eighties in the Italian League as a cornerback with a good nose for the ball but the sad tendency to hope it would fall into my hands instead of going for it. Which meant all but one of my seven interceptions in a two-year span occurred when the wide receiver blew past me but the weak-armed, precision-challenged quarterback underthrew him and I'd just jump and land with the ball, with a return of zero, if not minus-something, yards.

Which was just as well, as the only time I actually stepped in front of a receiver and started returning the interception the other team's fullback, an American, tackled me into Row Z, not far from my terrified parents' bag of sandwiches.

The first time I watched a sports event in the USA, nearly 20 years ago, I thought I had misread my boarding pass and had actually travelled not to another continent but across deep space to a different planet

Parents, by the way, made up 90% of the crowds then, but since 50 players were on the roster it would make for a neat triple-digit paying attendance, which made us feel like a million dollars.

Turning to something more serious than my forgettable feats on the pitch, players' parents, perhaps not even all of them, may be all that's left watching live football - the round ball version, the soccer, calcio, futbol, fussball, futebol, you got it - in Italy once the disintegration of the Serie A as we know it is completed, following the weekend's and midweek's events.

I obviously did not witness Sunday's matches in any Italian stadium, but once I saw TV clips of Juventus' winning goal, which was clearly marred by a Del Piero offside, I, and another Italian colleague who was in Detroit, could not resist rolling our eyes to the heavens - actually, Ford Field's ceiling - and muttering 'here we go again' with the saddest body language you could imagine.

The first time I watched a sports event in the USA, nearly 20 years ago, I thought I had misread my boarding pass and had actually travelled not to another continent but across deep space to a different planet: no sign of tension or pent-up frustration waiting to be unleashed inside the stadium, with fans enjoying the occasion, high-fiving each other, wearing their team's colours and all sense of fashion be damned, not to mention indifference, at most, towards anyone wearing the other side's apparel.

It could not have been a bigger contrast to the Italian scene. In a lot of travels there since then I have stopped being amazed by what I have seen, but I still take in every trip to NBA basketball or NFL games as a much-needed breath of fresh air; times where the last thing in my mind is to worry about getting hit by a coin, having the contest interrupted by some flare-throwing moron or enduring miserable weather conditions in decrepit stadia built or restructured before the 1990 World Cup with the foresight and life expectancy a moth might have.

Some of you may remember that I have mentioned that calcio is losing fans, with a huge projected decline in paying customers even by last year's less than scintillating standards. Betting and match-fixing scandals, administrative incompetence (if not downright fraud) and the domination by a handful of teams have finally started combining to form a very sceptical attitude among the fans.

Many of them are simply giving up attending matches. The Juve-Milan-Inter Axis of Evil' have locked themselves in a castle, burnt the bridges and only come out for easy pickings against those who cannot put up a defence, let alone lay siege to them.

As we wrote before here, Juve, the first of the Big Three to recently sell its own TV rights for a couple of hundred million euros, have done good business for themselves, and cannot be faulted for that, but the effect this and other deals is having on the rest of Italian football is destructive to say the least. One cannot expect the Lega Calcio to fully stand up for all its members, not even with 'small clubs' representative Maurizio Zamparini, Palermo's owner, as a number two to Milan's Adriano Galliani.

The growing chasm between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' has caused usually soft-spoken Sampdoria owner Riccardo Garrone, an oil magnate and not what you'd call a revolutionary, to say Juventus will find an empty Marassi stadium - no fans, no opponents, no nothing - for their March 4 visit if something is not done to address the matter of TV rights before then, which isn't very likely.

Readers will remember the subject has already been analyzed at length here, and things have not changed a bit since. Every club is by law allowed - but not forced - to sell its TV rights on its own, and the predictable result has been that the Big Three have gobbled up 80% of available resources, not least because they can boast a similar percentage of all Italian fans. All three, with Juve playing a leading role in this, are perhaps convinced they can prosper regardless of the fate of the rest of the calcio, because their position as brand names known throughout the world can keep them above water anyway.

Del Piero's goal reiterated suspicions that Juve get a preferential treatment

And although I'm perfectly aware of the huge differences between the two sports systems, being at the Super Bowl, listening to Pittsburgh Steelers president Dan Rooney express hope that the current system is maintained, which gives everyone a chance to win and comparing this to the pitiful situation in Italy, well, that was another dagger through my heart.

The situation worsened this week thanks to controversial refereeing decisions, of the sort we'd not had for a while - and been much better off for it. Del Piero's goal reiterated suspicions that Juve get a preferential treatment, and this was reinforced on Wednesday night when they were awarded a dubious penalty at home to Parma, which Del Piero missed (some would like to believe he did it on purpose because he was embarrassed by the ref's decision, but can you hit the crossbar on purpose?) then saw ref Palanca - who has since been suspended - look the other way a few minutes later, in second-half injury time, when Cannavaro wrestled Corradi to the ground as the latter was trying to reach a left-wing cross.

Juve, of course, have built their nine-point lead heading towards Sunday night's big game at Inter on the strength of the many qualities we've already praised and not because of help from the refs, but that offside goal and the dodgy penalty added another element of controversy to an already volatile situation.

Compare this - which some Italian newspapers have done, but sadly completely missing the point - to what happened in Detroit, where the Seahawks felt hard done by after a couple of calls went the other way.

Coach Mike Holmgren was critical of the umpires, but on the whole the majority of the fans knew their team made too many mistakes at critical times to deserve victory, and criticising the officials is a loser's attitude. Besides, most knew bad calls, if there were really any, had been just that, bad calls, not the result of some hidden agenda to hand the Steelers victory on a silver plate.

That's the big difference with Italy and calcio, of course: here, every mistake is seen as the evidence of behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by dodgy characters intent on favouring the same old clubs.

There is little sense of the fact referees can, and in fact will make mistakes. It's part of the despicable tendency of people here to lend their ear to any kind of conspiracy theory, not least because it's sometimes too hard to look reality in the face and accept it.

There HAVE been mind-boggling decisions in the last couple of matches, and they DID go Juventus' way, adding fuel to the fire of an already incendiary situation involving TV rights and competitive balance

And although I'm reluctant to go there since my knowledge of psychology and social studies is amateurish at best, it may also be part of our national psyche and the effect of something all Italians of working age experience every day: when you have absorbed the notion that you very rarely get a good job, or move up in your current one, unless you know the right people, regardless of your skills, it's easy to discount other people's achievements as being based on sheer talent.

Juve have perhaps the best midfield in Europe? Never mind, they win because of referees. Milan boast some of the finest attacking types in the world? Oh no, they win because of Berlusconi ('win', at least so far, being strictly limited to meaningless matches, except on October 29 against Juventus). And Inter... well, when Juve director Luciano Moggi speaks of Inter getting preferential treatment, which oddly enough they appeared to have at least twice in the last month, you know the situation has probably gotten out of hand for good.

That the conspiracy mentality has a stronghold on Italian minds could be seen, in a final link to the Super Bowl, last Monday when my colleague Massimo Oriani opened his browser to see how many messages he'd received on Gazzetta dello Sport's Super Bowl blog and chat, he noticed a huge percentage dealt exclusively with the officials' mistakes without mention for Hines Ward's receptions or MVP performance or Seattle's better first half performance, and very few concentrated on the game itself.

When I turned on my cellphone, a text message from another journalist friend of mine screamed in capitals the Italian equivalent of 'We Woz Robbed', 'We' meaning the Seahawks, and another friend called your jet-lagged columnist on Thursday and began his conversation with the words 'the officials handed Pittsburgh the Super Bowl, didn't they?'

Roethlisberger, Bettis, Ward, Hasselbeck, Wistrom, Whisenhunt, LeBeau (or Del Piero, Shevchenko, Figo, Ibrahimovic)? Marginal figures at best, innocent bystanders while the officials were doing all the action. So please take each piece of news regarding refereeing controversies here with a pinch of salt.

There HAVE been mind-boggling decisions in the last couple of matches, and they DID go Juventus' way, adding fuel to the fire of an already incendiary situation involving TV rights and competitive balance.

But please remember we're paranoid, in Italy, and in a country where scheming and taking shortcuts seem to be more rewarding than hard work it is only natural, subconsciously at least, that we believe everything that doesn't go our way is fixed, and we can extend to the Super Bowl the same paranoia-laden mentality we use for the Serie A, as if they were the same thing. Oh dear.


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