Win shares time with trial in Italy

Team's victory over Germany tempered by far-reaching hearings for match-fixing

July 06, 2006|By TRACY WILKINSON

ROME -- These are bittersweet days for Italian soccer fans.

Into the wee hours of yesterday, tens of thousands of Italians coursed through their city streets in raucous celebration of Italy's Tuesday victory over Germany, a win that put the blue-shirted national team into the World Cup final.

Later yesterday, under the hot summer-day glare, a massive match-fixing trial in an improvised courtroom in the belly of Rome's Olympic Stadium heard another round of testimony, part of a scandal so unseemly that one newspaper called it "football's funeral."

In all, 26 people, including referees, soccer federation officials and the executives of four top Italian soccer teams, stand accused in the largest scandal in Italian sports history. Most of the charges in the so-called "megatrial" involve an alleged conspiracy to pick and choose favorable referees and otherwise throw matches.

As punishment, Italian Football Federation prosecutor Stefano Palazzi is demanding that Italy's most famous soccer powerhouse, Juventus, be demoted from A to C division, the lowest level. Juventus is also in jeopardy of being stripped of a couple of past championships.

The other three teams that are implicated, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, would be relegated to Serie B. It would be the equivalent of sending a major league team back to the minors, with huge loss in revenue and status.

This unpleasant news would have reached the national team in Germany just before Tuesday's critical match. Roughly half of Italy's athletes competing in the World Cup belong to the accused clubs, including one of the scorers in the latest win, although none of these individuals is charged with anything.

Whether they had the scandal in mind when they took to the field, the Azurri played hard and tough and in the last minutes of overtime scored two stunning goals.

Coach Marcello Lippi said he was proud to have "reawakened the enthusiasm" in his country, and goaltender Gianluigi Buffon wondered whether fans could put aside the scandal and "enjoy the moment." They certainly did, during a long night of fireworks, chants, flag-waving and horn-blowing.

However, the next morning, the thrill of victory and the agony of scandal, to paraphrase, had to share headline space in newspapers and on endless news broadcasts.

Such ying-yang takes a tremendous toll on Italy's emotional fans.

"Very few times in my life was I as happy as last night," Adriano Vivona, 41, a production manager at an advertising firm and Juventus fan, said yesterday. "With that first goal I shouted, a shout of liberation. Before such a beautiful team, the trial transformed my joy into something more real."

The trial resumed with testimony from several of the defendants, including Diego Della Valle, owner of Fiorentina, who said he contacted referees only to complain about bad calls, not to try to influence a result.

Some Italian fans hope that the World Cup will allow their team to cleanse its reputation.

"You watch, if Italy wins the World Cup, we will all go back to wine and cookies," Nicola Policastro, owner of an electrical company and Juventus fan, said, employing an old Italian saying that means all will be forgiven. "The scandal will be over."

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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