Monday 11 December 2017

Italian football now staring into the abyss

Prandelli's moral code leaves national side in a vulnerable position, writes John Foot

Italian football is in chaos. That much is crystal clear. Let us take the events of the past week alone.

On Monday, 19 players were arrested in an ongoing match-fixing scandal, which is occupying the minds of three different judicial districts (Cremona in the north, and Naples and Bari in the south). Those arrested included the captain of Lazio, Stefano Mauri.

That same day, the current manager of Juventus, Antonio Conte, was informed that he was also under investigation for alleged activities when he was in charge of his previous club Siena.

The scandal also hit the preparations of the Italian national team. A dawn raid on the training centre near Florence was filmed by a TV crew (who had been tipped off). The raid was linked to another player under investigation; Italian left-back Domenico Criscito, who plays in Russia.

Criscito was later excluded from the national squad, a measure he has bitterly contested. Pressure was then placed upon another national team defender, Leonardo Bonucci, who is also being investigated by magistrates. Due to a technicality, he kept his place in the squad. As so often happens in Italy, things quickly went political. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister Mario Monti, who is not a man given to wild or off-the-cuff comments, argued that Italian football should think about stopping altogether for "two to three years" to sort itself out.

Most of the reaction to Monti's statement was negative, but his words quickly went viral in the world's media. And then things got even worse. Gigi Buffon, the great Juventus goalkeeper and a World Cup winner in 2006, gave a press conference on Wednesday where he criticised the magistrates for leaking information to the press and for the raid on the national team's HQ.

The next day, it emerged that Buffon had allegedly spent more than €1.5m in a small betting shop and tobacconists in the centre of Parma, the city where he played for many years. Buffon is not currently being investigated by magistrates or the tax police, but the leak was embarrassing, especially given the fact that Buffon was cleared of illegal betting in 2006, just before the World Cup.

On Thursday, in Rome, a series of 'sporting trials' began into a previous but connected series of match-fixing cases. Point deductions were announced for a number of clubs and bans for numerous players. One club may be docked as many as 27 points in next season's championship. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, as many more of these 'sporting trials' are due to be held over the next few months. In order to comply with UEFA regulations, Italy has to be clear who will make up each division, and which clubs will take part in European competition, by the end of July.

People began to panic. On Friday, Cesare Prandelli, the Italian national team manager, held a press conference in which he said that "it would not be a problem" if Italy were to withdraw altogether from the European Championships, if that would be a move which would be "good for the game". A quick reply came from the Interior Minister, Anna Maria Cancellieri, who told Prandelli that the team should "go to the Euros, and play well".

That night in Zurich, Italy were beaten 3-0 by Russia. "Right now we are a team that is suffering a lot," Prandelli said. Meanwhile, Giovanni Trapattoni called those involved in the scandal "imbeciles" and said that he felt "humiliated" by what was happening in Italy.

What can we make of this seemingly disastrous situation? Many fans are taking refuge in the memory of what happened in 2006. Then, as now, the Italian team was besieged by the media after a huge scandal, which became known as calciopoli, broke just before the tournament began. The manager of the team at that time, Marcello Lippi, used the scandal to great effect to create a siege mentality in his squad, where the team saw themselves as alone against the outside world. This togetherness was the basis of the team's unexpected victory in Germany, which was based on collective defence, hard work, and occasional moments of genius.

This time, things are different. Prandelli has made much of a moral code with his team that makes him and the squad extremely vulnerable to accusations of scandal and cover-ups. Hence the exclusion of Criscito which, however, seems to have led to fear of similar measures spreading to other players. Criscito, after all, has not even been charged and is merely under investigation. So, it is difficult to see the scandal working in Italy's favour this time around.

Moreover, the scandal has divided Italians into those who are calling for exemplary punishment and those who believe that the magistrates have gone too far. As a lead-up to a major tournament, the situation could hardly be worse.

This is a talented but fragile Italian team, with only a few players who have tasted victory with the national squad (De Rossi, Pirlo and Buffon). If Prandelli's attacking game comes off, it will be spectacular to watch, and it might well work. But he is putting a lot of faith in players whose off-the-field and on-the-field antics are well known to all football fans, players like Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. Both are mercurial talents, but both are no strangers to the unexpected and the bizarre.

Italy have an opening game against the best team in the world, Spain, next Sunday. But after another crazy week in the crazy world of Italian football anything is possible. Expect the unexpected.

Sunday Indo Sport

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