Scandal Hits Italian Soccer On Eve of the World Cup
Tuesday, May 16, 2006
ROME, May 15 -- As they do every four years, millions of Italians waited with anticipation Monday night as the coach of the country's national soccer team formally unveiled his selections for next month's World Cup in Germany.
Except this year, the announcement rang hollow.
In a country where soccer is one of the central components of the national identity and an unending source of pride and conversation, the run-up to the 2006 World Cup has been marred by a game-fixing and corruption investigation that continues to spread through the sport.
While national coach Marcello Lippi professed his "trust" in the game and his 23 players gathered in a posh hotel in a residential district of Rome, prosecutors on the other side of the city spent the day Monday questioning Luciano Moggi, the disgraced former general director of Juventus of Turin, the powerhouse team that is at the center of the controversy.
Accused of being the mastermind of a system that sought to have favorable referees appointed to work certain games and influence the transfer and sale of players, Moggi resigned Sunday after Juventus won Italy's premier league, Serie A, for a second straight year by beating Reggina, 2-0. It was the club's 29th national championship, but in the aftermath of Moggi's resignation Juventus might be stripped of its two most recent titles.
Lazio of Rome, AC Milan and Fiorentina of Florence also are under investigation as magistrates look into allegations of game-fixing during the 2004-05 season, Naples prosecutors said last week. Betting on games by a top goalkeeper, coercion, threats and even an alleged kidnapping reportedly also are being investigated.
Many of the accusations come from about 20 months of wiretapped telephone conversations that implicated not only Moggi, who has been described in Italian media as the cigar-chomping center of the controversy capable of influencing anyone, but several other top figures in the country's soccer world.
Juventus's former managing director, Antonio Giraudo, also is under investigation, and the Juventus board of directors was forced to resign last Thursday by the team's owners, the Agnelli family, founders of the automaker Fiat.
The scandal has reached into the top echelons of the soccer federation; its president, Franco Carraro, resigned, although he denies any involvement in wrongdoing. His deputy, Innocenzo Mazzini, also stepped down, as did two officials of the refereeing association, Pier Luigi Pairetto and Luigi Bergamo. The finance police searched the federation's headquarters Monday.
Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus's popular goalkeeper, has been questioned by magistrates regarding alleged illegal betting. He is accused of betting 2 million euros (about $2.5 million) on sporting events, although not on soccer games in Italy. Buffon has said he stopped making the bets when new rules came into effect this season banning such wagers.
Buffon was among those Lippi selected Monday for the World Cup squad.
Prosecutors in Naples believe that there was a group at the top of the Italian soccer world that formed a criminal organization to influence games. They have pinpointed 19 Serie A games and one from the second-tier Serie B league in the 2004-05 season. They are officially investigating 41 people.
Rome magistrates also are trying to determine the role of the player procurement agency GEA, run by Moggi's son, Alessandro. The agency allegedly used threats and coercion to represent some players in their contracts and their transfers to other teams.
According to news reports, Luciano Moggi broke down a few times during his interrogation Monday, but told investigators that there was no criminal organization at the top of Italian soccer. He said he had been forced to defend himself from what he called the "real powers" that run the game.
Investigators now have their eyes on this year's soccer season. If wrongdoing is found, Juventus risks being relegated to the Serie B league.
Trading in Juventus shares was suspended Monday when their value dropped by nearly 20 points in the Milan stock market.
Outgoing Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns AC Milan, said the whole affair was "terrible." He said he expected that his team should be awarded two victories for games that it just lost to Juventus in 2005 and 2006. "We demand that they" be returned to us, he said.
The kidnapping allegation stems from an episode in 2004, when Juventus lost, 2-1, to Reggina. Wiretapped conversations published in Italian papers said that Moggi and Giraudo were so angry that a penalty kick had been denied Juventus during the game that they entered the locker room afterward and insulted the referee and linesmen before locking them in a dressing room and leaving with the key.