Richard Mason reports on the scandal of the season in Serie A

There is a crisis in Italian football. An unprecedented series of refereeing errors (or “favours”, as many would prefer to believe) nearly all of which have benefited Juventus, has led to a degree of soul searching rare even in a country so frantically passionate about football as Italy.

The most recent occurred in the “match of the season”, Juve v Inter of April 26th, when Ronaldo was denied what seemed the clearest of penalties by referee Piero Ceccarini who then, within seconds, awarded a penalty at the other end. Admittedly, Del Piero missed it, but the damage had already been done. Inter President Massimo Moratti left the stadium 20 minutes from the end, commenting that referees were conditioned to favour Juve, and that he did not wish to be made a fool of any longer. Ronaldo called the decision “a disgrace”. To add insult to injury, Inter’s Ze Elias, sent off for a foul less heinous than one for which Juve’s Davids was let off, was suspended for three matches and Ronaldo and Zamorano for two.

Had all of this been an isolated case of a referee having a bad game it would probably have blown over, even allowing for the importance of the occasion. But it wasn’t. Throughout the season Juve have benefited from a series of decisions which can be euphemistically described as “strange”. Back in the autumn, Ferrara cleared a shot from Udinese’s Bierhoff when it was clearly over the line. The score at the time was 1-1, and the game was in the second half. The final result was 4-1, but it is reasonable to think that had Udinese been awarded the goal, a draw was  probably the maximum that Juve would have achieved.

Then, in February, Roma were denied what seemed a clear penalty by international referee Messina for a foul by Deschamps with the score at 2-1 late in a game Juve won 3-1. Against Lazio in Rome, Italy’s “top”’ referee, Collina, first sent off Nedved for protesting, and then judged as involuntary a case of hands by a Juve defender as he jumped with a Lazio forward at a corner. It was the last minute and Juve won 1-0. On April 19th at Empoli, with 15 minutes to go and Juve winning 1-0, Bianconi’s header was clearly over the line before Peruzzi scooped it out, but referee Rodomonti said no. Comically, television showed him mouthing “I saw it all, I saw it all”.

As I write, Juve lead Inter by four points, but it could be argued that these five decisions presented them with ten points that they had not earned, and they are not counterbalanced by any points “lost” for mistakes against Juve. Also, the events I have described are only the most glaring – there have been many others of a more minor nature. There is also the fact that after 27 games Juventus have committed 625 fouls (only Atalanta have committed more) and had two players sent off, while Sampdoria, with 496 fouls one of the cleaner sides, had seen no fewer than 11 red cards.

The commonest theory, to which I subscribe, is that referees are “conditioned” to favour Juventus, and to a lesser extent the other big city clubs. Juventus are an institution as much as a football club, and possibly a third to a half of Italy’s fans, whatever team they watch on Sundays, are Juve supporters at heart. Juve are also very strongly identified with the corridors of power because of their umbilical links with the Agnelli family, owners of Fiat. This can result, among other things, in staggering arrogance. After the Inter game, the nominal president, Vittorio Chiusano, denied the evidence of his own eyes in claiming that there was no penalty and that the referee had not helped Juve. The general manager Luciano Moggi contented himself with lecturing Ronaldo for “having learnt Italian too quickly”. If we add the increasing commercialisation of the game, with the consequent “need” to be successful not occasionally but always, we can understand why a referee designated to control a Juventus match may not always be ecstatically happy. Especially if you consider that it has emerged that Rodomonti, the villain of the piece at Empoli, went more than three years without refereeing Juve after he was “guilty” of awarding Genoa a goal that wasn’t in December 1994. This fact suggested to many that even if they don’t actually pay referees, Juve can dictate who does or does not referee their games.

Now people are rushing to suggest all sorts of radical changes. They range from electronic equipment to determine whether the ball has crossed the line through two referees and even to the use of slow motion replays during matches. The first of these might be acceptable, though eventually one of these machines would be bound to give a false reading and then we would be back to where we started. As for the rest, forget it (I hope). If the thesis that referees are condition-ed by the importance of certain teams is correct, it doesn’t matter what technology you introduce, ways will still be found to favour those teams, and the game in the meantime will have been irreparably impoverished as a spectacle for no advantage.

I think there are simpler solutions. First, an end to the system whereby referees for Sunday’s matches are announced on Wednesday and the newspapers regale us with details of their previous games – how many home wins, draws, away wins, penalties, red cards etc. Let people find out as they arrive in the stadium, as they do in England. Second, a bit more honesty and humility – when your team has clearly been the recipient of a piece of good luck, say so. Just a word in that direction from the Juventus backroom staff and perhaps some sympathy for Inter and the average fan in the street would have been satisfied. Third, remind referees that the old dictum, the best referee is the one nobody notices, happens to be true. Lastly, and most important of  all, referees who are patently unable to apply the laws  in the same way for all teams should be suspended  indefinitely.

Of course, it is now quite possible that the pendulum will swing back against Juve for a time, as referees bend over backwards to be “impartial”. In the meantime, Juve’s last game is away to Atalanta. It is just possible that both teams will need the points for opposing reasons. If this is the case, any volunteers to referee? God himself, who is quite popular in this country, would have his work cut out to come of that one unscathed.

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month

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