In the early evening of the 26th of January, the streets of bologna erupted in a noisy celebration. Cars and mopeds sped up and down the main thoroughfares for a couple of hours hooting and flag waving. The reason? Not, as this proud new father ambitiously expected, to celebrate the birth of my daughter, but rather the Italian victory snatched from the jaws of impending extra time (by a penalty) over that titan of world footballing circles – Australia. Indeed, in the maternity ward exchanging pleasantries with other new families, after the obligatory “ah, she’s beautiful”, the first topic of conversation was “we won!” (occasionaly followed by the more insightful “we almost lost!”).
And so Italy has predictably enough been swept with world cup fever. The team’s progress has had all the elements of drama required to warm the cockles of the most cynical hearts: in the dying days of the domestic season, Francesco Totti breaks his ankle – will he be ready and fit to play/save Italy?; Gigi Buffon, the brilliant and hugely admired goalkeeper for Juventus and the national side on the eve of the championship is called in to explain himself in an investigation into possibly illegal betting; the whole domestic league is thrown into turmoil with allegations of match fixing implicating Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina, with the publication of preliminary charges being delayed until after the first round qualification matches (also firmly in the spotlight is the sports management company GEA, with which the national coach Marcello Lippi’s son is involved).
In short the background to Italy’s world cup has been turmoil. And in the best tradition of ‘made for tv films’ the team has reacted with a strength of character only previously hinted at. Though they made a meal of qualifying past the group stages (with a particularly depressing 1-1 draw against the mediocre USA), and through to the quarter finals, but since then things have been on the up. In particular their semi-final win against hosts Germany provided one of the great moments of this world cup. In the dying minutes of extra-time, when Italian teams of the past would have settled in defensively for penalty shoot outs, instead this team pushed forward and scored two brilliant goals.
So why then does the prospect of an Italian victory in the World Cup finals tonight fill this monkey, and many Italians, with a curious combination of excitement and dread?
Excitement because this is a country that lives football, and winning the world cup is a collective dream. The team have played hard and well, and deserve the victory as much as any team competing.
Dread? Dread because already the wheels are in motion to convert a victory into credit for the domestic game despite the convincing evidence in the public domain of the most widespread, cynical and efficient system of corruption. When the scandals broke, just before the world cup, Coach Marcello Lippi’s place seemed in doubt. The former Juventus coach (the team at the heart of the scandal) while not directly implicated in the scandals, has enough personal connections to those who are to have made his position hardly tenable. Conventional wisdom was that as soon as Italy’s world cup finished, Lippi would be on his way. Needless to say, after their success in the cup so far, this is all likely to change.
Against the backdrop of the ongoing investigation into the corruption (which must have definitive verdicts before the end of the month, in order for the Italian football association to submit teams to both the UEFA cup and Champions league), the defence team for Luciano Moggi, the alleged Juventus Machiavelli, have launched a pr defensive counter-attack. If you’re looking for traces of the Moggi system, you should look no further than Germany and the world cup, they suggest. After all, their are a large proportion of the national team play with Juventus (Buffon, Del Piero, Cannavaro, Zambrotta,and Camoranesi), while Lippi and a number of his staff all have a Juventus (and Moggi) background. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to realise that there will be those who will read a victory in Berlin tonight as a vindication of the domestic league in general, and Juventus in particular.
One might expect more from the Minister for Justice Clemente Mastella (or perhaps not…), who has already started talking about lenient penalties for the clubs involved. In a gem of limp logic, Mastella has argued that “it shouldn’t be argued that those eventually found responsible shouldn’t be punished [there has already been talk about an amnesty], but this shouldn’t signify punishing the fans, the cities, the assets which have nothing to do with it [the corruption]“. Juventus, Mastella’s argument implies, shouldn’t be relegated to Serie B (or in a worst case scenario Serie C1), because that would punish the fans, and Turin as a city.
So, for mild mannered Mastella, the fans can live vicariously through their team’s victories, and cities can profit (in all senses) from the image boost an internationally renowned team brings, and clubs based upon their winning record can attract stellar players. When it’s found, though, that these victories have been staged – the clubs, and the fans must be protected.
Every time one team wins, obviously another loses – and in a country obsessed with football like Italy, that means financial losses as well. Clubs like Bologna have lost on a grand scale after being relegated in the last season – relegated thanks in part to a number of ‘suspect’ matches.
Mastella has always been a populist – veering between centre-left and centre-right with all the skill of a political Valentino Rossi. It would be cynical to suggest his motives for supporting lenient sentences lie in the fact that a huge proportion of the Italian electorate fall into the category of football fan for either Juventus, or AC Milan (and on the fringe Fiorentina and Lazio). Even more cynical would be to suggest a personal interest, given that Mastella was once vice president of Napoli football club, at the same time that Luciano Moggi worked at the club (and, as La Repubblica helpfully points out, Mastella is a close friend of Diego Della Valle, the head of Fiorentina football club which is also under investigation).
No, Mastella’s arguments are most likely motivated by the simplest of calculations and logic. The important thing is to win – it doesn’t necessarily matter how that’s done. It matters not a jot to him, it seems, that the corruption on display has been total and involves huge amounts of money. A club like Juventus takes in huge amounts of extra cash when it wins a domestic league – rise in share prices, rise in merchandising sales, increased negotiating power over tv rights etc.
This monkey hopes that the azzurri win tonights final with flying colours, and dazzling football. Then the team should be rightfully lauded, but not at the expense of a whitewash for the domestic game.
It all depends upon how you view a victory. Whether you think it’s worth celebrating a meagre victory over Australia, for example.
 La Repubblica Saturday 8th of July, 2006.