Cosi Fan Tutti
Now that the World Cup is approaching, the English-speaking media seems to be ignoring what is easily the most engrossing and important football story of the year: the impending relegation and possible obliteration of Juventus.
Corruption isn't exactly new to calcio. It's been less than two years, in fact, since the last major betting scandal, and it was only last summer that Genoa was stripped of its Serie B title and relegated to Serie C for having paid opponents to lose. So allegations (backed up by wiretap evidence) that Juventus has been regularly making unofficial "arrangments" with the league as with respect to referee assignments. Referees deemed "unfriendly" to Juventus were given other games to work while "friendly" referees (notably Massimo de Santis - whose outrageous disallowance of a Parma goal against Juve in their ultimately unsuccessful 2000 run-in cost him a six-month suspension) were given as many bianconeri games as possible.
Why is this incident different from the myriad of earlier scandals? In a word: size. Lots of small fry get punished in the Italian game, but the big boys are rarely called to account - and they don't get any bigger than Juventus. Sure, it's something everyone "knew" was happening for years, but nobody had any proof. But as in the 1992 Tangentopoli scandal, the judiciary has now put things in the open. The analogy isn't lost on the Italians. The '92 political scandals resulted in Operation "Mani Pulite" (clean hands); the '06 football scandals are already being called "Piedi Pulite" (clean feet). Even some of the magistrates from Tangentopoli have been called in to clean up the mess.
If the allegations are true, it explains a lot about Juventus' contrasting domestic and European performances. Virtually unbeatable in Italy, Juventus has been godawful in Europe, where they apparently can't count on friendly referees. They escaped humiliation at the hands of Werder Bremen in the Champions League second round thanks only to a monumental howler by goalkeeper Tim Wiese. Their aggregate 2-0 loss to Arsenal was as richly deserved as were the three sending offs they received over the tie's 180 minutes . They looked old, slow and not even vaguely competitive - it was well into the second half of the second game before they managed a decent shot on net.
The punishment - assuming they are found guilty (though Lord knows the powerful in Italy have ways of getting away with wrsit-slaps when hangings would be more appropriate) - is pretty straightforward: last year's title will be stripped and the team will be relegated. However, the fact that the league's inquiry into the affair - and hence any binding decision on Juventus' league status - isn't likely to end until late July, means that the drama has a while to run yet.
There will be two important knock-on effects. First, the transfer market. Juventus has a lot of big-money players that will be spread to the four winds if they get sent dowm. Expect clubs to come down like vultures on players like Ibrahimovic, Trezeguet, Vieira, Camoranesi and - my favourtie - Gianluca Zambrotta. Expect the two Milan teams to be the main buyers, with one or two heading to Spain. Zambrotta would do wonders for either Real Madrid or Barcelona; Milan will want to pick up either Ibrahimovic or Trezeguet to replace Shevchenko.
Second - the club itself. Juventus is listed on the Milan stockmarket. Club revenues from things like pay TV deals will be decimated by relegation, and the club as a whole would be in danger of a Fiorentina-like bankruptcy situation if it went down. No doubt the Agnelli family (of FIAT fame) would step in with some kind of resuce plan, but it might be several years before we see "Italy's team" back up in Serie A and longer still before they regain their hitherto-perennial position in the Champions League
Want to follow the story? If you have a smattering of Italian, the Gazzetta dello Sport is probably the best place to start, though La Repubblica is good place, too. But spare some time, please for the website Squidoo, which is doing an excellent job of covering the story. Squidoo's football page is written by Wu Ming 1, of the fabulous Italian Anarcho-literary quintet who publish collectively under the name"Wu Ming", but who formerly took the name "Luther Blisset" (and wrote the novel "Q", which is arguably the most intelligent political thriller ever written). Blisset, of course, was the English striker who was so godawfully bad at AC Milan in the 1983-4 that his name became a by-word for failure and even - say it softly - sabotage. The anarchist collective took him to their bosom because they thought his preposterously bad play was a sign that he was trying to break Berlsuconi from within.
Worst justification so far for the whole affair comes from Juve defender Fabio Cannavaro who, in effect, said that it was wrong to make a fuss about Juventus trying to rig games on the grounds that "everyone else does it too".
Cosi fan tutti - a comic opera.