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Notes on another scandal: Why Italy is prone to fixing

Football in Italy is not unlike driving. Laws are treated merely as suggestions

JERÉ LONGMAN

Football in Italy is not unlike driving. Laws are treated merely as suggestions.

The European Championships start Friday,and Italy is enmeshed in another match-fixing scandal. About 50 people have been arrested in the past year. Twenty-two club teams at upper and lower levels are being examined for impropriety. The police searched the national team’s training camp last week. Defender Domenico Criscito was removed from the squad. Antonio Conte,the coach of Juventus,the champion of Serie A,the top Italian league,is also under investigation.

This follows another match-fixing scandal in 2006,known as Calciopoli,which left Juventus stripped of two Serie A titles and demoted temporarily to Serie B. That year,Italy won its fourth World Cup title amid the scandal. But the latest indignity feels worse,more shocking,midfielder Daniele De Rossi told reporters,saying,“We’re going to the Euros with a stain on us.”

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Mario Monti,Italy’s prime minister,suggested that football be suspended in the country for two or three years. Cesare Prandelli,Italy’s national coach,said that he would not object if the Azzurri withdrew from Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine for the good of the game. Neither seems likely to happen. But there is a grave sense that termites have eaten away the foundation. And not only in Italy.

“It makes me very sad,” Andriy Shevchenko,the star Ukrainian and former Milan forward said. Is there something in the culture that makes Italian football vulnerable? “It’s difficult to judge,” Shevchenko said. “Italy has such a rich history of soccer. But with all the scandals,it loses a lot.”

This season,Italian soccer experienced a kind of revival. The 2006 scandal seemed to finally be in the rearview mirror. Now,it is again covered in scandal like Venetian tourists covered by pigeons in St. Mark’s Square.

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Three years ago,Fabio Capello,the highly successful Italian coach,said Italian football was held hostage by ultras. The blowback was fierce. Now even the prime minister wonders if the sport should be quarantined for disinfection. Italian prosecutors have identified a match-fixing ring that stretches from mafia influence in Naples to Singapore bookmakers to criminal enterprises in South America and Hungary. And Italy is hardly alone in this travelogue of corruption.

Scandals involving rigged matches have sprouted like mushrooms in Turkey,Finland,South Korea,Germany,El Salvador,Israel,China,Thailand,Zimbabwe and beyond. The latest reports involve possible match-fixing in Guatemala,where the United States plays a 2014 World Cup qualifying match June 12.

Gambling on football,legal and illegal,amounts to $220 billion annually,according to the World Lottery Association. Some put the actual figure three times as high. FIFA pledged $20 million last year to team with Interpol to try to contain match-fixing. But its security director,Chris Eaton,left in February. And the Italian scandal shows that FIFA is struggling mightily to cleanse a diseased sport.

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FIFPro,the Dutch-based international union for professional soccer players,calls match-fixing “the deadliest disease to hit modern football.” Sophisticated criminal enterprises,anchored in Southeast Asia,have dragged the sport beyond a game manipulated here or there into something darker,“a business model,” according to a blog by Declan Hill,a Canadian journalist and author of The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime.

In January,FIFPro issued a sobering report after interviewing more than 3,000 players in Southern and Eastern Europe. About 12 percent said they had been approached about fixing a match. Nearly a quarter said they were aware of match-fixing in their domestic leagues. Particularly vulnerable,FIFPro said,are Eastern European players who frequently go long periods without being paid and face threats of violence if they do not cooperate in manipulating matches.

Theo van Seggelen,the secretary general of FIFPro,made a stunning accusation. In some Eastern European countries players told van Seggelen that teams bought their places in the league standings. “They know in advance who will be one,two,three,four and five,” van Seggelen claimed.

When the latest news about the Italian scandal broke,van Seggelen wrote on Twitter,“How many wake up calls does football need?”

First published on: 05-06-2012 at 02:51 IST
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