On the eve of the Euro 2012, Italy coach Cesare Prendelli allowed that it would be a bad thing if Italy pulled out of the tournament—which trails only the World Cup in sporting importance for national teams. It would be akin to Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers saying it would be okay if the Celtics didn’t show up for the NBA playoffs. (Well maybe they haven’t this round, but that’s another story. )
Italy has been hit by another huge soccer scandal, which happens about as regularly as Don Giovanni does at La Scala. This time there are allegations of matching fixing involving more than 20 clubs, 50 players and 33 matches. Although most of the alleged fixing involves matches played in the second division Serie B, among those arrested was Stefano Mauri, captain of the top division Roman club Lazio. Another top player, Domenico Criscito, was training with Italy’s national team when cops raided the training ground to search his room. Criscito was dropped from the squad.
According to newspaper accounts authorities uncovered the scandal after it was discovered that a player on Cremonese—in deep trouble with gambling debts— had drugged his teammates with sleeping pills so they would lose their next game. (One of them crashed his car, which is how the plot was uncovered.) At Bari, another player scored a goal against his own team to allow the opposing team—and regional rival—to avoid being relegated to a lower division. Rivalry preserved; money made.
In soccer, because teams are relegated or promoted every year, there are competitions at the top and the bottom of every league. This doesn’t happen in the U.S., unfortunately, which is why the Pittsburgh Pirates are still in the majors. In Italy, the struggle to stay in the league you’re currently in is called la salvezza , salvation. In his wonderful book, The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, Joe McGinnis describes how, to his utter horror, the sketchy, small town minor league soccer team he’s been documenting for a year colludes to throw a game at the end of the season. They simply made a deal with another team, all in the name of la salvezza. The players think McGinnis is the crazy one for urging them to play to win an otherwise meaningless game.
After the last big betting/fixing scandal in 2006, called Calciopoli, the Serie A championship was stripped from Juventus and the team was relegated to the minors. Juve returned to Serie A a year later; this year Juve is champion again—and its coach Antonio Conte is being questioned by authorities about his activities while coaching at Siena. La salvezza again. Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Monti has gone so far as to suggest that pro soccer be shut down in Italy for a couple of years to put an ending to the match fixing. I wouldn’t bet on it.