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Jul 19, 2006

Of celebration and scandal

For lack of a more colourful word, 'interesting' is how recent events in Italian football can be labelled.

On two fronts - the national team and the bribery scandal, although an increasingly thick slice of the Italian public seems to get its collective blood boiling at the mere mention of a scandal, pointing out not a single match has been identified by the prosecution as having been influenced.

It's probably the same people who still believe the Mafia does not exist and it's only a product of Hollywood or novelists who have crossed the path of one too many dark-haired Italians with moustaches in the backstreets of New Jersey.

First, the Azzurri. Only a few days after lifting the World Cup trophy, coach Marcello Lippi resigned. He'd made the decision, apparently, during the tournament and after winning the competition he was entitled to leave the stress behind and look for pastures new, probably not the most appropriate term for someone whom even his former employers, Luciano Moggi and Antonio Giraudo, described in one of those notorious phone conversation as, more or less, only interested 'in women and boats' (as opposed to his successor Fabio Capello whose first, second and third priorities are apparently football and winning).

The ironic aspect about Lippi's resignation was that a plethora of personalities, players and Federation men raised their voices in his defence, urging those who had asked for his removal before the World Cup to apologise. Or better yet kneel, bow their heads and stick out their arms with palms down, knuckles exposed and ready to be battered.

This sycophantic reaction, of the 'everybody was against Lippi' variety, missed one crucial, obvious point. Those who believed Lippi's position to be at least awkward after those phone-tapping transcripts had hinted at a possible influence by Moggi and others - Lippi's agent son included - on the choice of players for the national team had asked for his resignation on moral grounds, not because they felt Lippi was not up to the task of leading Italy into World Cup battle.

That Lippi led Italy to glory vindicates once again his ability as a coach and leader, but did not and does not dispel the doubts about that shady side of things.

At the same time, Fabio Cannavaro's powerful displays in defence for Italy confirmed his status as an elite player but cannot eclipse the fact his house had been searched by the Financial Police only days before the start of the World Cup, and he'd been the only Italy captain in recent memory to be summoned to talk to criminal investigators during a day off from training.

Kudos to Cannavaro as a player, leader and captain, but even some people who could not suppress a gesture of celebration as Fabio Grosso's penalty kick handed Italy the World Cup in Berlin felt uneasy at watching and hearing how some in the squad were hailed as 'real men, men of integrity and character', as if everything that had happened before had been washed away by the triumph.

Which, do not get me wrong, is and will forever live in memory as one of the finest hours in the history of Italian football, as. after all, Italy won the World Cup cleanly, displaying probably on average the best football, with the highs of the wins against Ghana and Germany - in my opinion, the best game of the tournament for its combination of emotion, spirit, atmosphere in the beautiful Westfalenstadion - and admittedly the lows of the United States and a few tense minutes against Ukraine when only Gianluigi Buffon's excellence in goal and Gianluca Zambrotta's goal-line chest clearance kept the Azzurri in front.

With Lippi sailing off into the sunset - literally, as he took his boat to the islands off the Tuscany coast - his place was taken by Roberto Donadoni, 42, the former Milan winger with 63 caps.

Donadoni's choice was surprising because of his young age - remember, this is a country where gerontocracy and nepotism rule - and the fact his career at club level has been short and spotty.

His best success was in the past year at Livorno, where he was inexplicably sacked in March with the side - whose form then nosedived - in the upper third of the table and shooting for a place in Europe.

Rumours swirled about the real reasons for his sacking, none of them remotely connected to his ability as a coach though, and the fact his former teammate Demetrio Albertini, one of the good guys of Italian football and a member of the new committee charged with cleaning up the Federation, put forth his name was an important factor in his choice.

But even the introduction of Donadoni, whose mentors and inspirations were Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello, could not overshadow the effects of last Friday's verdicts on the football fraud scandal.

An insidious notion had been filtering through that Italy's World Cup win should have meant leniency (so, had Italy gone out in the first round, should the punishment have been more harsh?), a typical knee jerk reaction in a country where no-one - more than in other nations who may suffer from a similar ethical disease, I assure you - seems to understand the notion of accepting full responsibility for your actions.

A popular argument, especially among Juve fans, was that since eight Bianconeri had played in the World Cup final only days earlier, surely a side with such an array of superstars did not need outside help to win the scudettos, right?

Right, of course. But when you win a title by a handful of points over another great team like Milan even one refereeing decision going your way not as a consequence of a mistake - which can always happen - but of outside influences voids all of your achievements.

Luckily, the jury did not bite and the sentences were severe, with Juve, Lazio and Fiorentina sent down to the Serie B with 30, seven and 12 point deductions respectively and Juve stripped of the last couple of scudettos - hang on to those '29th title' T-shirts then, they may become collectable items soon.

Milan, to the dismay of the plethora of writers who can only seem to get pleasure from slagging off owner and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, were kept in the Serie A but heavily punished for 2005/06, with a 44-point deduction meant to keep them out of Europe and the relevant millions in TV rights. They will start next season with a 15-point handicap which should at least make things exciting and may even become a novel idea to make the Serie A interesting again...

Not everything the jury decided seemed plausible and rational and we could spend all day analysing the single elements of each club's position of crime and punishment.

But the reactions have been way over the top. There have already been the predictable street protests, one of the most primitive and despicable manners of expressing one's emotions as innocent train passengers were forced to delay their trips for hours when Fiorentina fans invaded the tracks in one of Florence's stations, effectively cutting off the country's most important North-South route.

While you can understand the frustration of the Viola fans who had thought the bad times were behind them, and the fact their club's punishment does not seem to fit the crime if you compare the vastly different roles Juventus and Fiorentina directors had in the bribery scandal, this sort of reaction immediately brings an element of savagery into the equation.

Sadly, what most of the people involved and punished in the scandal said after the verdict rode along the same lines of protesting innocence, claiming persecution and unfairness and generally blaming everybody but themselves, which flies us back to the aforementioned Italian trait of never, ever admitting one's guilt, in yet another sad show of ethical vacuum.

Some bad lessons for the kids, sadly right after the Azzurri had given young footballers around the country a vastly different example of how a side can be even better than the sum of his talented parts, ride good form and establish togetherness on-the-fly towards a world title.


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