Standing together

Serie A is in a rare state of turmoil, but Marcelo Lippi's team gave the country something to shout about. Paul Virgo reports on a remarkable Italian renaissance

With the Moggiopoli referee-allocation scandal raging, Italy had to brave some pretty bizarre circumstances on the way to becoming world champions. Gianluigi Buffon had to leave the pre-tournament training camp to talk to magistrates about allegations of illegal gambling. A fortnight before kick-off consumer groups were calling for Marcello Lippi’s head because his son Davide is under criminal investigation. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) prosecutor requested that Juventus be relegated two divisions and that AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina be sent down to Serie B for match-fixing the day before the semi-final with Germany. If that were not enough, the team also had to digest the upsetting news of a suicide attempt by Juventus’s recently appointed sports director Gianluca Pessotto, a former Azzurro and a friend of many players.

Much has been made of the fact that the 1982 side also went to the World Cup on the back of a scandal. But that affair exploded in 1980 and had run its course before the competition started. Paolo Rossi had already served a season ban for his part in the betting scam before hitting six in Spain. This time, on the other hand, the filth was flying throughout the tournament and it still is. Enzo Bearzot’s team of 1982 got so cheesed off with having the media on their back they stopped speaking to the Italian press altogether. Lippi did not go that far, but he did call journalists “pieces of shit” at one stage.

In fact, during the gloomy days immediately before the World Cup kicked off, it was not clear how the public was going to react. Many Italians were appalled when Fabio Cannavaro publicly stuck up for the main villain in the scandal, Luciano Moggi, who brought the defender to Juventus from Inter in 2004. The FIGC forced the captain to “clarify” his statements the next day, but he still got abusive chants from fans at the following training session. Magazine articles debated whether it was right to support Italy. Widely respected left-wing comedian Beppe Grillo called on people to cheer for Ghana in the opener. Sections of the right-wing Northern League party publicly supported the Azzurri’s opposition right up to the Germany game.

Despite all this, by the time the action started the rest of the country seemed to have decided that the scandal was one thing, the national team another. Italians tuned in to see the Ghana game in big numbers and celebrated the win with gusto. Looking back, this may have been the key moment. If Italy had failed to win that game, everyone would have concluded the scandal had the team rattled. It may well have continued to dog them. But the result eased the pressure from the press. When Italy failed to beat the USA in the next game, the analysis focused on footballing issues, nothing else.

The Azzurri gained confidence from coping with adversity and even managed to demolish a few stereo-types about the defensive nature of the Italian game on the way to the final. Few would have predicted ever seeing an Italy side with four strikers on the field, as happened at the end of the semi-final. Lippi’s team selection was widely praised, too. From the off, the coach had made it clear that his key man was Roma’s playmaker-striker Francesco Totti. But when Totti failed to show the class Roma fans are treated to every week, Lippi made no bones about dropping him from the starting line-up against Australia and substituting him in the final. (During the tournament, Cannavaro revealed that one of the secrets of sporting success is limiting sexual activity and that, as captain, he led by example. Probably not a policy Sven would subscribe to, but you can’t argue with results.)

With the FIGC about to hand out its punishments in the Moggiopoli affair at the time of writing, the post-World Cup euphoria may be short-lived. If the FIGC relegate the four clubs, 13 members of the World Cup-winning squad will be faced with the choice of finding new employers or moving out of the top flight. Whatever happens, the World Cup is not going to wipe out the ills of Italian football.

Nevertheless, this is still one of those occasions when the significance of a sporting feat goes beyond the game. Moggiopoli came after big scandals involving the Bank of Italy and Parmalat that, along with a declining economy, have dented the nation’s self-confidence. The World Cup win is a much needed boost. “We have rediscovered pride in being Italian,” wrote Umberto Zapelloni in La Gazzetta dello Sport ahead of the final. “In the celebrations in the squares there is energy, love for the red, green and white and an awareness that we’ll be envied by many around the world for our Italian passports. We are no longer just the nation of match-fixing, the people who wash the dishes and cook the pizzas… Thank you, Italy.”

Furthermore, in keeping the Azzurri separate from the scandal, the Italian public has shown more common sense than some politicians, such as Justice Minister Clemente Mastella, who want to use the World Cup win as a pretext for an amnesty for the clubs and individuals implicated. This is not a good idea and players from clubs involved, led by Gennaro Gattuso, have said they are against it. “A political class that is up to the task in hand is needed, not one that exploits this victory to protect hypocrisy and dishonesty,” wrote Marco Imarisio in Corriere della Sera. “This World Cup will only stay in our eyes if it ushers in a more credible Italian football system.”

From WSC 234 August 2006. What was happening this month