A tangled web in Italian football


By ROB HUGHES

The money has gone down the drain, salaries have not been paid, the courts are stepping in, the clubs are planning a boycott. And Italian football is in a quagmire. And it is fast becoming a joke. At least, Totti would think so

A RENASCENT Italy is a thing of importance, beauty and danger to European football. 

It is not lost on the Italian population that one of the few things going for their prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is that the club he owns, AC Milan, won back some lost glory for the nation when they triumphed in the Champions League final in May. 

The manner of the victory, a trophy won on a penalty shootout after Milan and Juventus suffocated each other with sterility, mattered less to Italians than the fact that their teams were omnipotent again. If outsiders cannot see the charms of defensive art, then let them choke on sour grapes. 

This week, there is a reappraisal. Berlusconi is displeased with his Milan team losing five pre-season games, and with a lack of style too. 

“Things have to change,” he warned the coach Carlo Ancelotti. “I want to see good football, above all, we must entertain.” 

Ancelotti looks at the same performances through a different perspective. He says the players are failing in their defensive duties. 

Two men with different views; one is the paymaster and the other the hired coach. Who do you suspect might win? While they bicker over dress rehearsals, Berlusconi has far weightier responsibilities as he tries to bring Italy's football house to order. 

While Berlusconi's own businesses can underwrite the US$8.2 million acquisition of Kaka, an attacking midfielder from Sao Paolo, and the sixth Brazilian in Milan's squad after Cafu, Rivaldo, Roque Junior, Serginho and Dida, many of the other clubs in Italy are breaking the law trying to stay in contention. 

Berlusconi's government backed a decree on Tuesday to prevent regional courts from determining the results of football games. This follows the alarming ruling by a Sicilian court that ordered Catania, from its area, to be reinstated to Serie B, the second division, and spared relegation to Serie C. Three others, including the bankrupt Fiorentina, were also brought back to Serie B and, angered, the other clubs are now planning a boycott. 

The decree is designed to ensure sports success or failure is won or lost on the field of play, and that rules disputes are decided by the sporting authorities. Without that decree, games are at the mercy of judges, and of regional interests. 

“The judges are invading the leagues, now a decree will block their interventions,” the prime minister told a newspaper Libero. “We need to distinguish between the common justice system and the sports justice system.” 

Just as threatening to Italy's national game, the passion that binds the country's leader to the population, is the indebtedness of its clubs, and accusations that even big clubs they are resorting to corruption to keep afloat. Both Rome teams - Lazio and Roma - have won Serie A in recent years. Both are now under investigation. 

Lazio's former paymaster, Sergio Cragnotti, is losing in business and in football. His canned-food company has been declared insolvent, and his shareholding at Lazio has dwindled to less than 3%. This follows a legal action by Claudio Lopez, the Argentine striker, to recover five months' unpaid salary. 

Yet, Roberto Mancini, the coach still builds Lazio's team, still recruits fresh talents, still works toward a renewed title challenge. 

Roma, too, grapple with the cost of competing against Milan (and Berlusconi's money), Inter Milan (bankrolled by oil magnate Massimo Moratti) and Juventus (the team of Fiat). Having won the Italian league two years ago, Roma are under investigation after police seized documents from the club offices.  

Together with three other clubs, including Napoli, they are accused of giving false bank guarantees on registration forms for the season that starts on the last weekend of August. The woman whose name appeared on the Roma application, Cynthia Ruia, is reported to have said that her signature was forged. 

Such is the web of Italy's financial intrigue that Franco Carraro, the president of the Italian league, is under scrutiny. 

Carraro is a former mayor of Rome. He is in charge of the “Internal Audit Committee” set up to see if FIFA, the power over the world game, is playing by its own financial rules. He is a man of many roles.  

When he is not shutting the front door of the Italian league headquarters on a thousand citizens from Sicily protesting Catania's fate, he is answering claims that his involvement with Capitalia, a bank that effectively kept Lazio out of bankruptcy, is in conflict with his duty to be impartial. 

We run into deep and disturbing currents. Italy's football, so proudly at the top of the Champions League pyramid, is in dire straits. Last December, a financial newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, showed that Serie A clubs had lost E948 million in the 2001-2 season alone. Last week, the same newspaper suggested that Italy's professional clubs owe the state E500 million, or about US$560 million, in unpaid tax and pension contributions. 

Even in a week when the Azzurri, the national Italian squad, played a friendly against Germany in Stuttgart, we could not, alas, concentrate on the players. There were seven Juventus men in the squad of 20, there were three from Inter, but also three from Lazio and three from Roma. 

How many of them were wearing fine clothes that concealed the fact that their wages are delayed, or even unpaid? The last laugh may be with Francisco Totti, the Roma captain who lives with the jibes that he may not be as bright as his play suggests. 

His book, “All the Jokes About Totti: My Collection,” has sold 600,000 copies. The proceeds, at Totti's insistence, are not flowing into football's bottomless pit, but to Unicef, the children's charity for which he is an ambassador. 

The Romanian team, meanwhile, brought some humour of their own into the week's proceedings. 

According to Romanian media, the team's fear of female travel companions is only one of a host of superstitions. Each player's first step onto the field must be with their right foot. All the players put some grass from the field into their breast pockets. Some put basil in their boots the night before matches. The national team's bus never reverses when players are aboard and nobody is allowed to whistle while on the bus. – IHT 

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