Can European Glory Salvage the Italian Game?

“And what is so new about all this? That football is fake, corrupt. We knew that already, even if some people pretended they didn’t know, or didn’t want to know because they have economic interests, or simply because they are fans.” –Maurizio Montesi, Lazio midfielder, 1980

Montesi was one of the exceptions who did not bend to the external pressures of bribery in a year that saw 38 people (33 of them players) arrested and charged for aggravated fraud. Milan and Lazio were relegated to Serie B, a cumulative 50 years of bans applied to all parties, and 25 points docked from a ring of lesser clubs. The scandal, known as calcioscommesse, even included Paolo Rossi, who returned from a modified ban in time to become Italy’s hero in the 82’ World Cup. What was it that precipitated such harsh punishments to those concerned? Match-fixing.

Italy is a country whose culture is entrenched in cynicism and suspicion wherever there is football. The Italian game has been dogged by charges of match fixing, influencing officials, ‘harmless’ conversations between club directors and referees since well before I was born. Much of it goes relatively unreported. Even calcioscommesse’s punishments and lessons mean nothing as doping cases, the administering of illegal drugs (Juventus, 2002), and most recently calciopoli continue to arise. With reports in Italy suggesting that Inter, the same weekend as winning their fifth consecutive scudetto, are now implicated in the 2006 match-fixing scandal I have to ask if victory in the Champions League will do anything to change the Italian game and how it is perceived.

When the term ‘match-fixing’ is used, many think rich individuals, high stakes, all-encompassing conspiracy theories…yet the truth has much simpler origins. It is, and has been, regular practice in Italy for teams to simply ‘agree to draw’ if it is in their best interests. There are no trials and no accusations; the result is greeted with an accepted level of cynical disdain. Settling for a draw also ties in with the notion that when a team has nothing to play for, there is no need to try. After all, what’s the point? On the final day of the 1999-2000 season Juventus needed just one point to secure the title and Perugia had nothing to play for. But Gaucci (Perugia president), knowing that effort without reward was frowned upon in the Italian culture, threatened his players with contract termination if they did not try their hardest. Perugia won, 1-0, and Lazio were crowned Champions instead of Juventus. Perugia-Juventus encounters have proven bitter ever since.

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In 2002, Inter needed a victory to bring them the title on the final day of the season, but lost 4-2 to Lazio. Marco Materazzi, of Inter, (who played for Perugia against Juventus in the match that handed Lazio the title in 2000) could be seen close to tears in the game saying to the Lazio players, ‘Up yours! I helped you win a Championship!’ Moratti, Inter president, later aggressively criticised Lazio for playing so well even though they had nothing to play for. The reprimand is indicative of the culture that pervades Italian football: when there are no concrete rewards, why should a team try so hard? It is important to understand that match-fixing, of the calcioscommesse and calciopoli vein, is facilitated by cultural and societal tenets. The people do not agree with it, but they simultaneously do little to truly combat it; it is just cynically accepted as a standard.

As if these sentiments aren’t detrimental enough for the integrity of the game, there is evidence of cheating being peculiarly lauded. In 2004, top of Serie B Atalanta had a penalty given against them in the final minutes against Avellino. The score was 1-1 and a defeat would have been costly so Gautieri, an Atalanta player, actually rubbed out the penalty spot. The confusion caused a lot of time to be wasted, paint to be found, and in all the drama the resulting spot-kick was taken, scored, ordered to be retaken, and then eventually missed. Gautieri, far from ashamed, spoke openly of his guile and gamesmanship. But when questioned about fair play he responded:

“Let’s not be moralistic. You know what football is like? It’s the use of instinct, craftiness, being able to react to different situations…It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last. This is football, and anyone who thinks otherwise has never been on a football field…The truth is that in a football game you are always trying to fool the referee…Anyone who says otherwise is talking rubbish, or is a hypocrite.”

It is not fair to judge this Inter team by the inglorious history of Italian scandal but it is fair to assess the possible European triumph of the team as doing little to change the reputation and circumstance of a game completely entrenched in cynicism and foul method.

The victory, I would argue, is actually in direct opposition to challenging the symptoms of corruption that sadly remain an ever present. The 2006 World Cup victory actually had a portion of fans and officials demanding amnesty for the guilty parties involved in calciopoli. It was argued that the national team had won, the country was galvanised, and a new start should be called for. This was remarkable and shocking in its absurdity. But this is a prime example of victory being used as a backdrop for smoothing over cracks and misdirecting public attentions (the ‘cracks’ in this case are very much ‘chasms’, though). Italy’s absence from the major European club competition’s latter rounds irked far more unrest and desire in seeing the tables turned and the problems tackled; a victory for Mourinho and his men may vindicate a team that could yet be stripped of one its titles and, subsequently, a nation whose domestic moral code in the game is muddled with verbal agreements, bribery and underhanded political pressure.

Sources:

Calcio: a History of Italian Football, by John Foot

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