Italy 10/03

The football watchdog is being investigated for producing false documents and the prime minister is telling the courts what to do. Paul Virgo investigates the fallout

The summer sun seems to send Italian football on tilt of late. Last year we had Fiorentina relegated to the fourth division after filing for bankruptcy and a late start because of a ruckus over TV rights. This time a furore over false bank guarantees used by Roma, Nap­oli and Serie C sides Cosenza and Spal has nudg­ed the closed-season chaos-bar a notch higher.

The scandal erupted at the start of August, when newspapers suggested it was odd the clubs had given the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) bank guarantees from a tiny finance firm called SBC; odd because a company worth €500,000 (£350,000) was underwriting club debts many times that amount.

When SBC’s managing director read the news he found it odd, too, not least because it was the first he’d heard of the business. A little digging soon showed the guarantees, which the clubs used to pass league-registration budget requirements, were fakes bearing the forged signature of a former SBC administrator.

When the Rome prosecutor’s office got involved, the clubs pointed the finger at FIGC’s financial watchdog, Covisoc. According to Roma sporting director Franco Baldini, Covisoc officials told the club it wouldn’t be registered unless it got extra guarantees from their friends at SBC. With the registration deadline about to strike, Roma claimed they had little choice but to agree. “They put our backs to the wall,” Baldini said. “We trusted them. We never imagined the watchdog itself would need watching over.” Since then prosecutors have notified six people they are under investigation, including two Covisoc officials. But it seems to have been accepted that the clubs acted in good faith.

All of which has an almost poetic irony, given that Covisoc were among the pieties that helped put paid to Fiorentina. Not so funny, though, for the teams involved.

As soon as the story broke, vultures at relegated Atalanta issued a petition to the sport’s authorities to have Roma kicked out of Serie A and themselves re­instated in their place, arguing Roma’s league registration was now “illegitimate”. Similarly, Catania own­er Luciano Gaucci persuaded a regional administrative court to give his side Napoli’s place in Serie B on the same grounds.

Previously Gaucci, who also owns Serie A side Per­­­ugia, had been fighting FIGC in both civil and sports tribunals for many months over Catania’s rel­egation to the third division. He eventually won that dispute – over league points not awarded because of first-team players turning out for youth sides – in another court in Sicily. But when the dodgy documents gave him fresh ammunition, Gaucci made doubly sure Catania would get back into Serie B at Napoli’s expense.

At which point prime minister Silvio Berlusconi issued a decree excluding regional courts from soccer matters. As AC Milan’s owner Berlusconi had an interest (some would say a conflicting one) in seeing the season start on time. And suspicious-minded souls might even suggest that, after having his share of run-ins with the judiciary, the premier was happy to put a few magistrates in their place when the chance arose.

Opposition politicians described the move as un­constitutional. One of Berlusconi’s coalition allies went further. Roberto Calderoli, deputy speaker of the Senate and a member of the Northern League, said it reminded him of “the times of Il Duce”.

The decree meant FIGC could safely ignore any judicial orders to relegate Napoli or (potentially) Roma. But to keep everyone sweet, FIGC then decided to reinstate three clubs relegated from Serie B last season – Catania, Salernitana and Genoa. The fourth, Cos­enza, missed out because Covisoc hadn’t registered it (for financial problems not related to the forged doc­uments). FIGC then sprung a surprise by giving Cos­enza’s place to Fiorentina, who had just won promotion to Serie C1.

But this solution didn’t seem so sweet to the existing second division teams – which suddenly had four more rivals for promotion – and the many third div­ision clubs that couldn’t understand why Fio­rentina had leapfrogged them. In protest, 19 Serie B clubs didn’t turn up for their Italian Cup matches on August 24. They threatened to do the same for the first weekend of league games.

The word in the press was the top clubs would either try to appease the rebels by expanding Serie A from 18 to 20 teams next year to make promotion easier, or use the row as an excuse to stage a Premiership-style breakaway. But at the time of writing confusion reigned.

From WSC 200 October 2003. What was happening this month