Global Economics

Unsportsmanlike Conduct in Italian Soccer?


Soccer grips the hearts and minds of Italians like nothing else. So when a major scandal rocked the national sport in early May, Italians up and down the country were wringing their hands in despair and disbelief. If news reports prove true, Italian soccer fans have good reason to be upset.

Top managers at Juventus, the country's best team, including the 68-year-old general manager, Luciano Moggi, have been implicated in a scheme in which they are said to have influenced or even bribed referees, athletes, and the media. The news reports stem from recently released mobile phone wiretaps and other evidence in a multi-year investigation by the city of Turin's public prosecutor.

The scandal couldn't have erupted at a worse time for Italian soccer, just one month before the start of the World Cup competition. And new documents expected to be made public next week could widen the scandal to other soccer clubs and referees. Moggi declined comment other than to say on Italian TV that he views the entire affair as "a farce." But the scandal is already a black mark for the sport.

NO LAWS BROKEN. "Even if [it turns out] there was no proof of corruption, there was the scent of corruption in the Turin case," says Fabio Ravezzani, director of sports for television channel Telelombardia. "Italy will present itself very badly at the World Cup."

Turin's public prosecutor's office sparked the current controversy when it released the wiretaps upon finishing its investigation, which concluded that no laws had been broken. Nonetheless, the findings underscore for many Italian soccer fans the shortcomings of the Italian soccer federation's self-regulatory mechanisms. For instance, one released transcript contains a conversation in which Moggi appears to be pressuring a Federation official to appoint referees that would favor Juventus. Officials at Juventus declined comment.

The scandal is already starting to take its toll. On May 8, the head of the soccer federation, Franco Carraro, resigned his position to take responsibility for lapses in oversight, though he has not been implicated in any of the allegations. Fan blogs and the Italian media have moved into overdrive commenting on what many in Italy see as a soccer system gone bad and the sense that everything people watch -- games, talk shows, championships -- has been rigged.

TO MARKET. Commentators note that the structure of the Italian soccer federation is ripe for conflicts of interest. "For too many years the same people have been occupying all the power seats," said Antonio Di Pietro, the leading public prosecutor in the Milan corruption scandals of the 1990s and now a member of Parliament, in a recent TV interview. One blogger puts it more succinctly. "Squalor!" cries blogger Giuseppe on a popular Web site.

The soccer federation's headaches will likely only intensify. Separate investigations are still under way in Rome and Naples that could result in criminal charges, according to published reports in Italy. The soccer federation has also opened an investigation of its own. And since Juventus stock trades on the Milan exchange, stock market watchdog Consob is reviewing its activities.

The regulator wants to know whether Juventus hid or distorted market-sensitive information, and why its shares rose more than 12% after the scandal broke. Consob also is probing rumors that Juventus could seek a delisting of its shares. Juventus officials declined to comment on the investigations.

FAMILY AFFAIR. The Naples investigation is particularly tangled. Prosecutors there are looking into an agency called Gea World that represents coaches, players, and referees, according to press reports. Gea World was founded by the sons and daughters of four prominent Italian men: Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi; Calisto Tanzi, the former head of Parmalat and the Parma soccer team; Sergio Cragnotti, the former head of Cirio and the Lazio soccer team; and Cesare Geronzi, the Capitalia bank chairman under investigation in connection with the Parmalat bankruptcy.

Gea World is faced with possible conflict of interest issues because it handles the contracts of athletes and coaches and is supposed to be negotiating on their behalf. But many in Italy suspect that the agency, because it is run by the sons and daughters of club owners, isn't always negotiating with the players' and coaches' best interests in mind. Gea World officials declined to comment on the Naples investigation.

BROKEN DREAMS. Next week the prosecutors are expected to close their top-secret probe and ask the court to decide whether to send the case to trial. At that stage it is likely that the text of the wiretaps will be made public -- whether or not the case does go to trial -- giving fans and bloggers new fodder in the ever-passionate tragicomedy of Italian sports.

That would just add insult to injury for an already disillusioned Italian public. "If the allegations are true, my boyhood dreams have been crushed," says Sebastiano Russo, a 40-year-old Milan deliveryman and fan of Juventus, expressing a widely held view. "Soccer is supposed to be a clean game."


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