The uses that organised crime groups have for football are changing, in both scope and style. Matthew Barker reports

Stories of organised crime latching onto football are nothing new. Illegal gambling rings, match-fixing, extortion, money-laundering – the globalisation of the game has seen a parallel growth in criminal activity.

Last month in Italy, anti-mafia association Libera published a report declaring over 30 mafia clans (something of a catch-all phrase covering the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, Neapolitan Camorra and the Sacra Corona Unita in Puglia; all with different characteristics) are now directly involved in clubs.

The country's national anti-mafia prosecutor, Pietro Grasso, claimed recently that the game was "in danger of being strangled by criminal powers", warning clubs to be more conscientious when vetting potential new investors and to be aware of the dangers of infiltration by unlawful parties.

Certain sections of the Italian media can be pretty sensationalist when it comes to stories linking crime with football. In August allegations were made that mafiosi were communicating with each other via coded text messages displayed on-screen during state broadcaster RAI's Sunday afternoon football show Quello che... il Calcio. The claims, made by a former judge during a parliamentary hearing, were quickly rejected by Grasso and a RAI spokesman later claimed that a mere 0.01 per cent of messages sent actually make it on the (now withdrawn) ticker-tape running along the bottom of the screen.

Genoa's Giuseppe Sculli and Roma's Marco Borriello and Daniele De Rossi are among a number of players whose private lives have been affected by the miserable consequences of organised crime. Palermo, in particular, have repeatedly had to put up with rumours and accusations, always angrily dismissed by club president Maurizio Zamparini.

The recent media fuss following an informant's claims that Matteo Messina Denaro, believed to be the current head of Cosa Nostra, attended a rosanero home game at the tail end of last season was laced with various insinuations.

Generally, Italian criminals have always focused their attentions on smaller clubs down in the lower leagues, where fewer controls are in place and fewer questions tend to be asked. Traditionally this has meant the south (as Palermo-born Grasso pointed out), but increasingly clubs in the north have been targeted by clans looking to launder money, or as a way into local politics (with most grounds coming under the auspices of city councils). Of course, buying into a football club has always been something of a vanity project too; a way of flaunting wealth. Libera tells of one boss of a Sicilian clan taking over a small team in the province of Siena, much like a successful businessman buying a villa in the same region.

The report devotes a whole chapter to the case of Potenza Calcio (based in the city of the same name, in the Basilicata region). The club was taken over in 2006 by Giuseppe Postiglione, a young businessman (24 at the time), and for a couple of seasons it was all looking very promising. Promotion to the old Serie C1 and a Fair Play award for the club's fans upped their national profile, but Postiglione had popped up on the radar of investigators who had connected him to a Camorra boss. Under surveillance for a year, he was arrested in November 2009 on charges of illegal betting and involvement in match-fixing, including a game between Potenza and Salernitana in April 2008. Potenza were demoted to the now renamed Lega Pro 2 (previously C2) at the end of last season, before dropping into the Eccellenza local amateur leagues after failing to present accounts during the summer.

Postiglione has emerged in press stories as something of a fantasist, a young man easily seduced by the idea of gangsters and a criminal underworld. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Libera's report, in a country where sport has always had strong educational and welfare traditions, is the claim that clans use clubs' youth sectors to enlist recruits, many of whom wouldn't be too much younger than Postiglione. The theory is that parents are willing to compromise, to take short cuts to further the chances of their kids' potential careers, and thus space is created for the mafia to work in.

Libera warns that, for criminal clans, small is beautiful, at least to begin with. Lower-league clubs offer a way in, a gateway to bigger things. The report's ominous conclusion, that organised crime is "the new calciopoli", needs to sound alarm bells at every level of the Italian game.

From WSC 285 November 2010

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