Light at the end of the tunnel
When the last deal in the summer transfer window was completed at 6.59pm on Thursday evening, a sudden realization enveloped everybody in Italian football. After another summer delving into our Cliff notes in order to freshen up on legal terms and obscure football federation by-rules, it is finally time to kick off the season - something which looked light years away just a few weeks ago.
Fixture list done? Check. Transfers completed? Check. But there's still the small matter of determining exactly how many points Juventus will be deducted in their first ever campaign in the Serie B, which kicks off on Saturday in the unlikely setting of the Adriatic seaside.
The resort of Rimini is one of Italy's top destinations for unsophisticated holidaymakers who want sand, sea, sun and are not going to kick up a fuss if none of the above look like being in the Caribbean, or if the words 'good taste' rarely seem to come to mind once you stroll around the promenade full of youths and ladies pretending to be hip and glamorous, with comical results.
There was, of course, little comedy in the summer of another lady, the Old Lady. Former directors Luciano Moggi and Antonio Girando's scheming and behind the scenes leg and phone-work proved too much for the Federation courts, even though there appeared to be not a single instance of a match being definitely influenced by them.
The general tone and essence of the phone conversations between Moggi, the Federation's vice president and the two former referees who were in charge of assigning refs (only one of them received significant punishment) simply warranted that something be done lest Italian football, as other sectors of Italian life, be left in the hands of a few oligarchs pulling strings at their complete will, helping friends and creating as much damage as possible to foes.
The apologists who keep saying Moggi and Juve did nothing wrong, except perhaps make the kind of phone calls every lobbyist does, should of course ask themselves why then the Home Secretary - the Home Secretary! - for the previous government felt he had to call Moggi in order to make sure his local constituency's side escaped relegation.
Juve, as everyone will know, were sent down along with Lazio and Fiorentina, but those earlier penalties were overturned on appeal, with Lazio and Fiorentina being allowed back into the Serie A - albeit with point deductions - and Milan being handed back as many points for the 2005-06 as they needed for Champions League qualification, which left UEFA unimpressed. The appeals verdict caused outrage among many who sniffed another chapter in the encyclopaedia of Italy's 'punishment doesn't fit-crime' was being written.
Indeed, with a stubbornness that should be channelled into a better cause, all those clubs except Milan reacted as if their basic rights had been violated by the sentences, when in fact it should have been the fans of the other clubs, the ones that had not resorted to dark magic and behind the scenes machinations, that should have been outraged.
They had, after all, been at the receiving end of a series of string-pulling activities, without ever being able to produce proof of that, and I'll own up to the fact I myself had dismissed the conspiracy theorists in a story I wrote last spring, because not for one second would I have believed such a complex web of corruption actually existed.
Juventus then went on and sued the Italian Federation for damages, because the punishment from the sporting courts would have severe consequences on their full ability to trade as a listed company. Before you call in the men in the white coats please remember a staple of Italian life: If you repeat a lie a thousand times it becomes a truth in the modern media-dominated world where a soundbite can be heard over and over again in an endless list of channels.
So Juve's claim that the punishment dished out to them was much worse than that meted out to Lazio and Fiorentina, not to mention Milan, was obsessively repeated to the point that very few dared point out that their responsibility and involvement was much deeper, too.
Juve, of course, are a great club, and the latest scandal should not taint a legacy of decades of success. But a good portion of it has always been based on arrogance - in itself, completely within the laws - which became even more irritating for non-believers as it was coated with an aura of high-class respectability which the media were all too willing to spread.
While it is easy to feel sorry for the millions of fans who genuinely believed Juve's results in the last couple of years were as pure as a mountain creek, it is hard to sympathize with those who have been writing in droves to newspapers claiming the whole scandal was a conspiracy AGAINST Juve, in fact Moggi was only protecting Juve from the evil forces of Italian football.
Believe it or not, that's what many still think.
The forgettable August in Italian football produced another dubious achievement when Antonio Materrese was elected League chairman, almost twenty years to the day he'd left the same job to progress to head of the Football Federation. Ironically, Matarrese's election happened on the same day the NFL voted Roger Goodell as new Commissioner, and it couldn't have been scripted better: while one organization was moving forward by promoting a relatively young man who'd been part of the growth of the League, another was going back to its own past, in a revealing picture of the vastly different attitudes of both countries and both sports.
In Italy it is sadly common that anyone who takes up a position of responsibility does so because a political party has hand-picked him to be there. A good sport federation is a welcome reward for someone who has perhaps been active in corralling support for a party, or has served as an MP. Even the appointment of Guido Rossi as a commissioner of the Italian Federation was easily seen by some as evidence that his past as an MP for the Communist Party had made him persona grata to the current ruling majority.
Matarrese, 66, had been the president of a horse breeding association (don't ask) for a while before jumping back into the frame when club owners could not agree on other candidates and voted overwhelmingly for him. His election caused dismay among many who saw it as another sign the wind of change that had appeared to gather strength after the scandal had broken out was about to be throttled.
It must be said, though, that the Italian League experienced a period of wealth and prosperity under Matarrese's watch. No scandals, no high-profile bankruptcies, no waiting until late August before the fixtures were out. And clubs as diverse as Verona and Sampdoria won the Scudetto, at a time when there was a smaller financial gap between the haves and the have-nots.
It may have been down to looser control over club accounts, or behind the scenes deal-making before anything got out, or perhaps the absence of the huge TV contracts which materialised later in the Nineties, but those who remarked this about Matarrese have a point, and in his first days in office he sounded as if he was going to protect the small clubs against the arrogance of the mighty, who have been used to muscling aside everybody else.
Now there's a novel idea, but the recent history of Italian football does not allow for unconditioned optimism. We'll see, but for the time being it's so good to be able to leave behind all legal speak and get back to real football. It could be a difficult year for both the Azzurri and the Italian clubs involved in Europe, but let's just hope what we see on the pitch is what we get. The events of the last couple of years were anything but.