Scandal Inspires Italy to Win World Cup

By Andrew Dampf
Associated  Press
Sunday, July 9, 2006; 8:08 PM

BERLIN -- Scandal and World Cup victory. For Italy, they are becoming old acquaintances.

In the Italians' case, maybe it's better that officials from top soccer clubs are accused of fixing matches.

"If the scandal hadn't happened I think we wouldn't have won the World Cup," said Gennaro Gattuso, the midfield workhorse of Italy's national team. "It has given us more strength."

Against the backdrop of its biggest soccer scandal in history, Italy won a fourth World Cup on Sunday, beating France 5-3 on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie.

The last time the country won the World Cup, in 1982, a betting scandal preceded the tournament.

This year, allegations of corruption and favoritism have piled up against Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio -- the four Serie A that 13 members of Italy's 23-man squad call home. A sports tribunal in Rome is looking into the accusations, and could render its verdict as early as Monday.

Prosecutors are seeking to demote Juventus -- the "Old Lady" of Italian soccer -- into Serie C, the lowest division of Italy's club soccer league, as well as strip it of league titles from the past two seasons. They also want Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio relegated to Serie B.

Grief also played a part for the Italian team when the news came that Gianluca Pessotto, a former player appointed as team manager in the wake of the scandal, had fallen from a window at the team's headquarters in Turin. Pessotto is still fighting for his life at a hospital, and the circumstances of his fall remain unclear.

"I've tried to calm my teammates in difficult moments," captain Fabio Cannavaro said, "and there have been many in these seven matches."

Gianluigi Buffon had to defend himself against allegations of illegal betting before the World Cup. In May, there were calls for Cannavaro to hand in his captain's armband after allegations emerged that he purposely played poorly to hasten his transfer from Inter Milan to Juventus two years ago. Cannavaro vehemently denied such behavior.

Italy persevered through the worst of it: The day prosecutors requested relegation for the top teams, Italy beat host Germany 2-0 in the semifinals. News of Pessotto's fall came a day after Italy beat Australia 1-0 on a final-play penalty in the second round.

"This squad showed great heart," Gattuso said. "Maybe it wasn't pretty, but we were hard to beat. We played each game one at a time and with great humility."

Italy coach Marcello Lippi acknowledged that France played better Sunday, but said Italy deserved to win.

"It's a fair conclusion because there are some people who have suffered more than others," Lippi said. "Like Buffon, who was the best goalkeeper, and Cannavaro, the best defender."

The idea of amnesty for the teams involved in the scandal was floated around Italy's World Cup camp, but none of the Azzurri said that would be fair.

"Whoever made mistakes has to pay," the players repeated one after another over the past month.

All the anguish did not dampen the Italian celebration of its win over France.

"The most important thing is that Italians have shared a sense of national pride," said Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, who also attended the final.

Italy's players were certainly not thinking about their uncertain future after Fabio Grosso converted the decisive penalty kick in the shootout, or the verdicts from a sports tribunal looking into the allegations, which could come with celebrations still in full swing.

Coach Marcello Lippi smoked a cigar and was carried aloft by the team. Players sang, danced and screamed for nearly an hour after the game was over. Defender Marco Materazzi placed a red, white and green top hat on the Jules Rimet Trophy before Cannavaro raised the cup.

Italy's Justice Minister Clemente Mastella, who attended the final in Berlin, said the sight of stars from the World Cup champion team playing in the equivalent of soccer's minor leagues would be unthinkable.

"It is not acceptable to see Buffon, Cannavaro and (Alessandro) Del Piero in Serie C," Mastella said. "We hope justice will be fair."

© 2007 The Associated Press