Italy 07/06

The rising tide of scandal engulfing Serie A in general and Juventus in particular has shoacked a nation. But amid the ruins there is hope, as Paul Virgo reports

You know things are bad when you have to take morality lessons from Sepp Blatter. But former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi seems to have taken soccer skulduggery to a new frontier – as Paddy Agnew of the Irish Times noted, it’s not a question of match-fixing any more, it’s “season-fixing”. Blatter described the affair as the worst scandal in the game’s history, adding that he would have expected it from an African nation, but not Italy. Franz Beckenbauer predicted Italy will pay the consequences at the World Cup. The international press have had fun getting sanctimonious about sleazy Serie A, too. 

If a fraction of the allegations are true, the Italians deserve it all. And they know it. “Blatter and Beckenbauer are no saints, but all we can do is take the blows and say they are right,” wrote Gianni Mura in La Repubblica. “This scandal is worse than all others; it is the most wide-reaching, with the methods most similar to those of the Mafia (without the murders).”

We thought we had seen it all – false passports, false bank guarantees, financial chaos, doping, crowd trouble, racism, fascist salutes. Suspicions about Juventus nobbling refs are as old as Serie A. So you might have thought the Italian public were half-expecting something like this. They weren’t. The overwhelming response was shock and anger. “It’s like being [a lover] sick with jealousy, who realises that the things he suspected are actually true,” said Inter owner Massimo Moratti, who now understands why his big spending brought in zero scudetti. “It’s terrible for those who have thrown away money, hopes and passion. Not just me, the public too.”

The fact that the Juve-referee talk turned out to be more than urban legend has fired Italy’s love of conspiracy theories. There is speculation that the scandal broke now because Silvio Berlusconi’s election defeat opened the way for the magistrates to take a pop at a system that had been protected. Another theory is that the whole thing has been orchestrated by AC Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, because he thought Moggi was after his job. An American writer, Christopher Winner, chipped in, pointing out that Naples magistrates are leading the anti-Moggi/Juve crusade and suggesting there might be some score-settling for the humiliations Napoli have suffered in recent years.

The affair has been dubbed Piedi Puliti (Clean Feet), because the depth of the corruption resembles the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) scandal, which swept away much of Italy’s political establishment in the early 1990s. Similarly, most of the game’s top brass have been forced out, so, like then, it could be a chance to start afresh. There are signs though, that the party divisions that meant Mani Pulite was only partially successful in transforming Italian politics may also stop Piedi Puliti being a watershed for Serie A.

Clean Hands remains hugely divisive. The Italian right say the investigations were manipulated by leftwing magistrates to hit figures on their side of the political spectrum. So the decision to put former Clean Hands prosecutor Francesco Borrelli in charge of the Italian FA investigations office has sparked a storm. The scandal is politically sensitive because Berlusconi, who has had plenty of run-ins with magistrates, owns one of four clubs under suspicion – albeit marginally at the time of writing. “Will we now witness a political use of sporting justice? Things like this do not happen in a democratic country,” said Isabella Bertolini, an MP in Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Clean Feet is that it confirms the worst stereotypes about Italy. Italians are left reflecting on uncomfortable questions. How could the whole system – refs, journalists, TV presenters, FA officials, police officers included – be so comprehensively corrupt? Is the rest of business and public life as bad? Why do Italians seemingly find it so hard to stick to the rules? Why didn’t anyone speak up? Some fear so many people in the game have dirty hands that even now a blanket of omertà, mafia-style silence, may stop investigators getting to the full truth.

 That said, Clean Feet has also given the Italians a chance to show their better qualities. These include enterprise (shops sold an array of Moggi T‑shirts from day one) and wit. Lots of banners at grounds raised a smile. One, referring to Moggi’s tapped phone calls, read: “New Moggi-phone mobile contract – talk as much as you want and pay at the end of the season.”

Furthermore, the scandal confounds stereotypes, too. Juve fans were among the most sickened by it. And at least the dirt is being dug up, which shows sections of society (magistrates, above all) are incorruptible and interested in seeing the rules upheld. Can those abroad, the British too, be sure crookedness closer to home would be so ruthlessly exposed?

From WSC 233 July 2006. What was happening this month