Sunday, July 9, 2006

Italy's tragic triumph invevitable?

Italy sit on the verge of a remarkable triumph amid the most explosive scandal to hit European football for decades.

In only a few days Juventus could be relegated to Serie C and Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina to Serie B for their roles in trying to arrange referees for Serie A matches.
The board of the Italian F.A. have all resigned, the national manager has been questioned and former Italy midifielder and still Juve employee Gianluca Pessotto has attempted suicide. Stirring stuff on the eve of the World Cup Final.

Against this backdrop it seems almost ordained that gli azzurri will lift the trophy, a pyrrhic victory given the domestic game is in shambles.
The fact the police are banging on the door back home has conversely not upset but inspired Marcello Lippi’s men to perform superbly, no less than in their expert derailing of the host nation in the semi finals with two killer strikes of sublime quality.

”I think the scandal will affect the Italy players,” Italian soccer journalist and co-author of Gianluca Vialli’s latest ‘The Italian Job’ Gabriele Marcotti told Soccerphile before the tournament, “but perhaps not in the way you think. First and foremost, the vast majority of them seem to view this as good news, a cleansing of the system, if you will. None of them liked Moggi and even fewer liked GEA, even some GEA clients (the principal player agency implicated).” Italians live amid corruption on a daily basis, so this came as no surprise.

Paolo Rossi cam back from a ban imposed for match-fixing to be the star of the 1982 World Cup, an important omen for Italy, for whom Fabio Cannavaro and goalie Gianluigi Buffon have performed heroics.

“With regard to Buffon it's quite simple,” says Marcotti: “He either did bet AFTER it became illegal to do so (November 2005) or he did not. If he did, it will come out and, I think, he knows that, in which case it will unsettle him. If he did not, and his conscience is clear, he knows he has nothing to fear.
Cannavaro's name comes up time and again. The transcripts I saw don't suggest he did anything wrong, but he seems uncomfortably close to Moggi and I think it could tarnish his image. Certainly, knowing the kind of guy he is, I don't think he is enjoying the scrutiny: he has done a lot to cultivate a well-deserved reputation as a nice guy.”

But there are different perceptions at play here and the mega-scandal that was broken by Gazzetta dello Sport may not be viewed back in Italy as badly as it is here. As Marcotti explains:
The way it will affect Italy is at a political level. It's the kind of thing some countries (like England) never worry about, but which others (Brazil and Spain first and foremost) are very concerned over.

With a very weakened federation and no credible people on FIFA's important committees, there is a fear that Italy will be an after-thought when it comes to assigning referees. As a general rule of thumb, if you're stronger than you're opponent, you want one of the better refs, if you're weaker, you'd rather have a poor ref (who might make a mistake in your favor).

In 2002, the Italian FA was blamed as much as anyone after we got Byron Moreno in the knockout game against Korea. It was felt they should have done more to get an established official, one who would not make the kind of mistakes that Moreno made.”

Paul Foot, author of “Calcio – a history of Italian football” rated the azzurri as “favourites or second favourites” before the tournament and I for one doubted him.

But as he explained, “Italy already has the best defense and goalkeeper in the world and they tend to get stronger as tournaments go on. Totti needs to be fit too as he is crucial but I don't see any weaknesses in them apart from maybe at right back.”

When I analysed the draw and the permutations in early June I came up with a final of Brazil v Italy although I would not have said Italy were the second best team in the tournament before the start. If one suspected they had had a favourable draw to begun with and then advanced courtesy of some old style histrionics and an inept referee against Australia, the Italians certainly earned their stripes in the semi final beyond any doubt.

As Marcotti concluded, “All things said, our record in World Cups is actually very good.” Tonight should see Lippi's men achieve more stunning glory against a backdrop of criminal disgrace and complete an amazing tableau of the Italian game.

Copyright © Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile.com

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