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The Toe Poke
By ESPN Staff

End of season antics

Desperate Livorno, the bottom side in Serie A with little chance of avoiding relegation, will enter their penultimate match of the season at home to Torino, without six of their regular players who were suspended on Tuesday for a total of 13 games. No surprise, perhaps, as right after the final whistle in last Sunday's Atalanta-Livorno game, five of them chased Simone Padoin, the Atalanta player who had scored an exquisite winner one minute from time, nullifying the visitors' comeback from 2-0 down.

Padoin, a 24-year-old left midfielder and defender, was roughed up by a few Livorno players, one of whom attacked him with an empty plastic bottle. His alleged crime? Padoin had violated the unspoken football rule that you just don't score near the end of a late-season game which has no meaning for your own side but carries a lot of significance for the other team.

The Livorno players' reaction was very similar to others seen throughout the years in the same circumstances, although all the players involved tried to deny - unconvincingly - that the reasons for their behaviour were anything other than sheer frustration at letting a game, and perhaps Livorno's place in Serie A, slip away with the last kick of the match.

Cue snickering from all quarters. The history of Italian football is littered by examples of dodgy late-season results and savage reactions by those who felt they had been at the receiving end of a fraud. There is obviously no definite proof that what happened in Bergamo on Sunday has roots in that old tradition, but the very fact everyone thought it did must mean something.

And that was not the only dubious result from last Sunday, judging from a scene from the San Siro press room after the Milan derby: as highlights from other matches were being shown, a couple of reporters commented on the clips from the Torino-Napoli game without knowing the final score from that match. When Torino scored a penalty, they nodded knowingly; when Napoli equalised, one of them expressed surprise and remarked how the goalscorer, Matteo Contini, could not help but put the ball in the net as he was only four yards or so from goal, but still almost managed to miss; and when the next clip showed David Di Michele scoring Torino's winner only a couple of minutes later, a sigh of 'that's more like it' went up, as if saying 'Napoli couldn't really spoil Torino's battle against relegation, could they?'.

Again, and this must be made clear, there is no proof at all that Napoli were just trying to pretend to be looking for a result when they actually weren't - I watched the whole match on tape and they tried hard all the time, in fact. But past experiences could teach a lesson or two about those dodgy late-season results.

One the strangest instances dates back to 1982. On the last day of the season, Napoli (just a coincidence) played Genoa at home, while Milan were at Cesena. Having gone through a difficult first season back from Serie B, where they had been sent as a punishment for the 1980 match-fixing scandal, Milan needed a win and a Genoa defeat in order to avoid relegation. With the Rossoneri keeping up their end of the business, winning 3-2, Genoa were 2-1 down late on when Napoli goalkeeper Luciano Castellini, a former scudetto winner with Torino, literally threw the ball for a corner kick, one of the weirdest and most unlikely scenes you're going to see in a professional football match.

From the resulting corner, Genoa equalised and Genoa fans and Napoli fans have been 'twinned' ever since - a typical Italian practice where two sets of fans seal a truce and support each other.

One year later, Genoa were again at the centre of a very suspicious incident, albeit not in the last day of the season. Struggling against relegation, they were playing Inter at home, six Serie A matches from the end of the season. With the score at 2-2, Inter midfielder Salvatore Bagni scored the winner, but when he turned around he noticed he was the only one celebrating, while all other Inter players had apparently no reaction or looked upset.

'[At Inter players] Your officials need to know you're scum! Things like this just aren't done five minutes from time!'.
A Genoa director

A few days later, a source told two young reporters for newspaper Il Giorno, Paolo Ziliani and Claudio Pea, how a brawl had broken out in the Inter dressing room after the match, while a Genoa director had screamed at the Inter players saying 'Your officials need to know you're scum! Things like this just aren't done five minutes from time!'.

Those words, in the much more direct original version in Italian ('Non si fanno queste cose a cinque minuti dalla fine'), became the title of a book Ziliani published in 2005 and was met with indifference and silence by most of the media. Indeed the Il Giorno investigation had been ridiculed by rival newspapers - some of them because they had been beaten to the scoop, others because you just don't touch big clubs like Inter - and Ziliani later wrote how one of his colleagues apparently approached Inter offering to stop him from further investigating.

Allegedly, several Inter players had placed bets - at the time betting was outlawed in Italy - on the match and Bagni, who was unaware of all of this, had ruined their afternoon. Genoa players tried to explain their behaviour by saying they had seen Inter slow down after their second equaliser and had been angered at the sudden burst of action that had brought Bagni's goal, but the explanation seemed awkward and the Italian Federation (FIGC) started an investigation.

A few months later, though, the prosecutor, Aldo Ferrari Ciboldi, was sacked and both Genoa and Inter were cleared of all charges as 'proofs were not substantial', a type of verdict that at the time was not among those that could be used by the FIGC. It was thought at the time the FIGC did not want another scandal only a year after Italy had won the World Cup.

Bizarrely, Bagni had suffered the consequences of his naiveté, or lack of awareness, on the last day of the 1978/79 season, too. He was playing for Perugia at the time, and the side from Umbria had just lost out to Milan for the title despite being unbeaten all season. Perugia were at Bologna, themselves desperate for at least a draw in order to avoid the drop to Serie B.

Decades of dodgy last-day results had led most of the fans to believe a draw was definitely on the cards, but Bagni scored twice in the first half and a cloud of despair and disbelief descended on the Stadio Dall'Ara. Before the half had ended, a Bologna defender elbowed Bagni in the face, sending him the message he had gone too far, and when Perugia took the field for the second half Bagni was nowhere to be seen, having been taken off. Inevitably, Bologna scored twice and avoided the drop on goal difference.

While it has no suspicious circumstances, Bologna's game against Juventus on January 13, 1980 can help us understand some of the dodgy dealings going on at the time and the mentality presiding over the outcomes of some matches at this stage of the season.

This is what Carlo Petrini, a Bologna player at the time, told a newspaper a few years ago: 'Three days before the match, Bologna's general manager told us both clubs had agreed on a draw. Everyone in the dressing room agreed on this, and all but two of us bet 50 million lira (a huge amount at the time) on the draw. Juve players told us none of them had bet any money because - in their words - they had already hit the jackpot a fortnight earlier against Ascoli. In the tunnel, I begged Trapattoni to keep their promise, and he nodded to me.

'The first half was horrible, and the fans were booing us. Then in the second half [Juve winger] Franco Causio hit a speculative shot which our goalkeeper Giuseppe Zinetti could not hold and Juve were ahead. No one, not even Causio, celebrated, while we went crazy. I entered as a sub, and seconds before Bologna took a corner Roberto Bettega told me not to worry. The corner kick was swung in and [Juve defender] Sergio Brio headed into his own net'.

A month later a few Bologna players, including Petrini, placed their money on a draw against Avellino but failed to tell the others, so when Bologna scored, their opponents did not have time to equalise and many other players from other teams, not to mention the bookies, lost their money, which led to the disclosure of the affair.

While Petrini wrote of mid-season results which were arranged, the instances of suspicious late-season results have been too many to mention. A few years ago, then-Perugia coach Serse Cosmi, a veteran of lower-division football, while waiting to go on air during an evening talk show, was picked up by a microphone saying how the previous year Juve Stabia, a Serie C2 side based near Napoli, had lost any chance to qualify for the playoffs with eight games to go so from that moment on they basically threw all matches.

Cosmi added that in the latter part of the season agreements are usually made so that a particular player may find it easier to score and top the goalscorers' chart, increasing his market value. He was sued by some of those he had mentioned, but there has been no action over this matter for a while.

So, pay attention to the last two Serie A matches of the season. Hopefully, there will be no dodgy results and suspicious outcomes and sometimes it may just be a matter of 'football people' understanding their surroundings - but fans of relegation threatened Parma will still be hoping that Inter are confirmed as Italian champions on Sunday so their last game won't matter too much to them.

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