Euro 2012: Prandelli's Azzurri riding on crest of latest fraud scandal
Italian football carries shame beautifully. Its latest match-fixing scandal has been reframed as a chance to display the strength of the nation in "overcoming difficulty" and the offer to withdraw from Euro 2012 was, perhaps, a clever show of humility.
The Azzurri would not be facing England in a quarter-final this weekend had Uefa accepted the offer by prime minister and team manager to pull out of this tournament. However much bluff was wrapped up in that proposal from Mario Monti and Cesare Prandelli respectively, it cast the Italian game in a sympathetic light. Here was a sport and a body politic so contrite that they were willing to skulk voluntarily into a doghouse for "two or three years" (Monti's timescale).
There was never the slightest chance of Uefa taking them up on the idea.
So, now a side who share England's new taste for modesty and hard work are in the first stages of a renaissance under a manager who walked 15 miles to a monastery at 3.0am this week to honour a promise made to his players.
Shame's long cloud may darken the industry these men come from, but the tournament offers a glimmer of salvation.
Gianluigi Buffon, their goalkeeper and captain, said at their camp in Krakow: "There are always some difficulties in Italian football, so we are used to dealing with them and we want to fight against them."
What are they "fighting against?" A vast betting and match-fixing scandal that involves 21 mostly lower league clubs. Prandelli's offer to withdraw from Euro 2012 came in a week when Italian police arrested 19 alleged conspirators, including the Lazio captain, Stefano Mauri. Domenico Criscito was dropped from the Italy squad after being questioned at the team's Coverciano training base.
Even Buffon's lawyer felt compelled to deny any involvement on the part of arguably the world's No 1 goalkeeper. Marco Valerio Corini said: "There is nothing which could even carry the faintest suggestion of a connection between Gianluigi Buffon and any betting activity that would concern him in any irregularity either with respect to federation rules or criminal law."
"This time it's worse than 2006 -- at least for me," said Daniele De Rossi, the Roma and Italy midfielder. "It's more shocking this time, with the police coming into Coverciano and people I know being arrested. We're going to the Euros with a stain on us."
In 'La Repubblica', the columnist Fabrizio Bocca wrote: "These are not sporadic or isolated acts. They are continuous and organised." This new scandal envelops the home of Calcio six years after the outrage of Calciopoli, which implicated Juventus (who were relegated), Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina. Then, corruption stemmed from Italian clubs rigging games by managing the selection of referees.
Despite this crushing dishonour, Italy beat France in the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin. Echoes of that defiance can be heard in Italy's march to this European Championship quarter-final against England, two years after the team imploded at the World Cup.
In South Africa they gathered just two points from a group containing Paraguay, New Zealand and the debutants, Slovakia. "Going home in shame," cried 'Gazzetta dello Sport', who called the 3-2 defeat to Slovakia "the darkest and most terrible day in the history of Italian football".
"Our aim was to bounce back from the weak image we gave in South Africa and try to surprise our fans," Buffon now says. In that sense Italy and England are on similar paths. Each seeks to atone for lamentable showings at Africa's first World Cup. Both have worn an apologetic or beseeching countenance. The two squads seem happier in the role of meek workaholics.
Only one, though, is beset by an imbroglio that points, possibly, to institutionalised fraud, six years after the Italian game thought it had moved on from Calciopoli.
Italy's players have become accustomed to fielding questions on the murk beneath the surface of the country's fragrant and colourful national game.
De Rossi, the highest paid player in Serie A, says: "The Italian people have a strength for overcoming adversity." Rather cunningly, this presents a scandal as an external affliction, a chance to rally together, as it did in 2006.
More immediately an impressive midfield of Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo, De Rossi and Thiago Motta (if he recovers from a bicep injury) confront an England side equally well endowed with tenacity.
Buffon calls Wayne Rooney "the driving force" and picks out Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Ashley Cole as other major obstacles.
Prandelli's pre-tournament offer can still be heard along the corridors, even as his team revive the spirit of 2006. "If you told us that for the good of football we should not participate, it wouldn't be a problem for me."
That was his phrase. Instead the country's sports minister urged the team to fly to Krakow as planned and show the best face of Italian football: the face of Pirlo, Motta and De Rossi.
If England fall in Kiev, we can expect a slew of analytical tracts on the relationship between guilt and redemption. Or, more simply, on how useful a scandal can be. (© Daily Telegraph, London)