Sky falls in on the Azzuri

By tradition, the heavens beneath which Italy’s Azzuri train for a World Cup is of a blue as deep as the team’s shirts. But this campaign at the retreat in Coverciano on the edge of Florence began under a weeping, leaden sky. “Even God wants to piss on us,” shrugged a security official at the gates that may keep out curious fans, but afford no protection against a hurricane of corruption and scandal.

Normally those fans wave flags and line up for autographs, but now clutches of supporters come to jeer and whistle their disapproval.
“Champions or Mercenaries?” reads the graffiti outside. Of course there is a tribalism in this: the scandals affect mighty Juventus above all, arch-enemy of the local team, Fiorentina. “But usually, at this time, we are all Italians,” observed Mauro, the security man.

The squad resembles a group of serious artisans trying to perfect their skills in a stockade, while a high and highly distracting drama—compelling and squalid—unfolds around them. Indeed, it is hard to believe this team are trying to focus on, and prepare tactically for, a competition at the zenith of football, about which barely a word is spoken at Coverciano.

Over the past few days the scandals, which have captivated the most football-crazy nation on Earth, have galloped from their point of departure, when Juventus’s general manager Luciano Moggi was accused of fixing referees. With the Old Lady facing relegation to Serie B, the ousted prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, tried to seize the moral high ground, but then the offices of his club, Milan, were raided by financial police. Scores of other teams are also to be investigated for alleged falsification of balance sheets.

Italy’s coach, Marcello Lippi, is under pressure after his son Davide was put under criminal investigation last Friday for alleged illicit finance and “threats of violence” during consultancy work with the GEA agency, which represents some 200 players and coaches. The Italians have an expression: figlio di papa (daddy’s boy) and GEA is run by none other than Moggi’s son, Alessandro.

The scandals took their most important symbolic stride when the Milanese Judge Francesco Saverio Borelli was last week appointed to head the criminal investigation. The insinuation is crystal clear: Borelli spearheaded the operation codenamed Mani Puliti—Clean Hands—which put an entire political class under arrest in the 1990s. The present investigation is inevitably dubbed Piedi Puliti—Clean Feet. This is more than a joke: Clean Hands began with a single warrant, signed by Borelli in Milan, then spread like wildfire across the political system, and football is providing kindling just as dry. Berlusconi, many of whose friends and political allies were caught in Borelli’s net, jibed: “They’ve chosen their referee, just like Moggi.”

The names of players are starting to surface as potential witnesses, most prominently Fabio Cannavaro, captain of Juventus and of Italy. And so the usual relaxed rules of engagement between players and battalions of reporters have changed. Training normally concludes with endless chiacciere, or chit-chat, but a diktat has gone out: all interviews must be supervised and recorded, and these tapes made available to Lippi.

But, like most rules in Italy, these are made to be broken, precisely because they involve irresistible chiacciere. As players leave practice little huddles form, indiscretions are proffered. Asked if the players talk about the scandals, Alessandro Nesta says: “We talk about little else. The whole business is a betrayal of those who love football. I want to turn back and smell the air of football as it was when I was little.”

“We are trying to do our work in a correct and professional way,” said Milan’s midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, “but all this is very distracting. However, I think we have an opportunity. It’s a chance to change Italian football, to clean up Italian football.”

Andrea Pirlo pleads: “The players are apart from all this—the cleanest and healthiest part of the game.”

“It’s been a very bad start,” admits Gianluca Zambrotta of Juventus. “There’s no denying it. To be a serious contender for the World Cup you have to have a degree of tranquillity. But we’re working hard for that, to focus on what we have to do, which is to play our game.”

Then there is Juve’s goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, with his own set of problems, summonsed while at dinner in the retreat by magistrates from Parma to discuss alleged betting, which is against the rules. Once back he ploughed through the scrum of cameras, head down, only affording himself a few remarks after he was cleared to go to Germany. “Now I can concentrate on the World Cup,” he said, “with no other thought in my head.”

The high point came when Cannavaro brazenly paraphrased the title his compatriot Lorenzo da Ponte penned for an opera by Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte—they all do it. “This is not a matter limited to the managers of Juventus,” said Cannavaro, straightforwardly, “the whole system of football functions like this.”

The next morning, the team paraded their new stylish suits, specially designed by Dolce & Gabbana. Cannavaro looked striking but no one wanted to know about the glitz of alta moda, only the contents of a piece of paper read out solemnly by the federation spokesperson in which Cannavaro said: “I did not explain myself well,” that this was “a moment for reflection for the world of football” and he had “every faith” in the judicial investigation.

Warfare between Juventus and Milan is unfortunate given that Italy’s first XI is, with the probable exceptions of Fiorentina’s Luca Toni and Roma’s Francesco Totti, effectively a fusion of players from the two clubs. But in their private remarks the players show a maturity their masters would do well to learn from. While Berlusconi demands that two Juventus titles be rescinded and given to Milan, Gattuso said: “I don’t want those titles, and if the judge grants them to us, I certainly won’t celebrate them.”

Lippi exuded inner calm, sauntering between the practice pitches and his friends in the press packs. The coach is known for his focus on “the mental game”, and before the scandals broke talked about building a “club spirit” among the national side.

Then his son was put under criminal investigation. Lippi faced the most awkward moment—to date—of a career that has garnered five scudetti with Juventus.

“Of course I have spoken to Davide; he is calm and bitter,” he said, then a sharp change of subject: “It matters not what work you do, but how you do it. These have been important days; I have seen some excellent work, and great will and determination among the boys. Now for the World Cup—into the wolf’s mouth.”

“On the pitch we just have to put it all behind us,” says Gattuso. “Everyone knows that we have a duty, an obligation, to the country, to the fans and to Italian football. For goodness sake, we’re competing for the Coppa del Mondo not a coppa di nonno [literally grandpa’s cup, the Italian term for a coffee ice-cream cone].”—Â

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