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Joyful Italy Finds Itself in a Real Fix

July 06, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — These are bittersweet days for Italian soccer fans.

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

Later Wednesday, 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 this 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 Azzurri played hard and tough and in the last minutes of extra time scored two stunning goals.

An ecstatic 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 yin-yang takes a tremendous toll on Italy's very 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 Wednesday. "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.

Luciano Moggi, forced to resign as general manager of Juventus and the alleged mastermind of a Mafia-like network used to favor his team, has not yet appeared at the trial, which prosecutors said could end as early as next week -- after the World Cup final.

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."

Livia Borghese of The Times' Rome Bureau contributed to this report.

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ITALY VS. FRANCE

World Cup final

Sunday, at Berlin, 11 a.m. PDT

Channel 7 and Channel 34

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