Thursday, July 20, 2006

In Which We Revisit the Dark Side

As World Cup 2006 begins to recede in our rearview mirror, we here at a pretty move turn our attention to the rest of the football world, namely Italy, where arguably the biggest football scandal in history has been unfolding since May. Punishments handed down last week further outraged calcio fans, as Juventus (stripped of recent titles), Lazio, and Fiorentina were unthinkably demoted to Serie B and AC Milan, the only one spared, faces heavy fines and a significant point deduction with the new season. Needless to say, you won't see the likes of these squads back in the Champions League anytime soon. Also needless to say, everyone feels very hard done by and is pointing fingers at everyone else, whose fault it really was. Filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli calls on Fiorentina fans to "cut Italy in half!" to protest the team's demotion, but there had been talk of sending the guilty down to an even lower league. Some might say all the teams ought to be grateful to have gotten off as lightly as they did.

(Meanwhile, World Soccer reports that former Juventus director and all around super-villian Luciano Moggi made an average of 416 phone calls per day between November of 2004 and June of 2005, a figure which makes my telephone-hating self want to lie down with a cold compress on my forehead. What is he, a fourteen-year-old girl?)

When a book about Italian soccer played a large part in my tuning in to the sport in the first place, I assumed I would faithfully follow the ups and downs of Serie A; to my surprise, I found Italian soccer, as seen on TV at least, entirely unloveable. Later, after reading Franklin Foer's chapter on Italy in How Soccer Explains the World--which suggested just such a scenario of corruption and match-fixing--I thought of every result as tainted. I loved the idea of Italians' passion for the game, but I found it unwatchable.

A funny thing happened as the Italian squad dived, fouled, and--lest we forget it--impressively attacked and defended their way into the final round, even as the fate of soccer back in Italy grew grimmer by the day. I found myself watching them in grudging admiration. Something about the scandal has been purging--there, it's all out in the open now, what I suspected all along--and while a style of play which makes great use, among other things, of so consistently and cynically drawing fouls is repellent to me, I began to find it fascinating as well. Of course, I find the Borgias fascinating as well.

But I wouldn't invite the Borgias over for dinner (goodness, no, of all things!), while this is a little different. I believe I could grow fond of these lads. It's no secret that government and business in modern Italy are mired in corruption. And if you've ever lived or spent much time in a place where corruption and bribery and peddling influence are woven so deep into the country's infrastructure that it's impossible to get anything done independent of it--and I mean anything, like get a job, an apartment, a place in school--you begin to realize it is something else besides cynical and corrupt. It is a way of life. It is what you do to survive. It becomes irrelevant, in a way. Viewed in this way, what's a little theatrical tumble between friends?

Make no mistake. I am sickened and horrified by match-fixing. It makes me want to rail and shake my fist at the heavens demanding to know is there nothing good and sacred in the world? What remains to be seen is whether this will clean up il calcio once and for all or if this is simply a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Meanwhile, as chronicled by Lisa, while players from the four teams rush to sign new contracts, Pavel Nedved looks set to stay put at Juventus, as does Alessandro del Piero.

And speaking of the Czechs, and football scandal, my one-time home of Mlada Boleslav is set to enter Champions League competition for the first time amid similar scandal-mongering. Anyone out there know any more about this? I only learned of it a few days ago when hopelessly outdated copies of World Soccer finally turned up locally (apparently shipped by a Thor Heyerdahl-style boat to our distant frontier shores). I did a bit of searching online but since my Czech language repertoire basically consists of "Dobry den! Mluvite anglicky?" I'd be most grateful to anyone who can ferret out information more current than from this past May. Meanwhile, until I hear further, I shall be cheering on the Mlada Boleslavians in their bid for European domination!


Zach Dundas said...

Of all the real contenders for the Cup, Italy somehow managed to forge the best, truest *team* effort. Cannavaro's heroics aside, they lacked a defining star a la Zidane or Ronaldhino. Instead, they played like a big bank-robbery outfit, each player's particular strengths and foibles balanced by some other guy.

Did the pressure of the match-fixing scandal have something to do with that? Or can it be more aptly attributed to the fact that all these guys ply their trade in the same league and thus mesh into a unit more seamlessly than, say, Brazil?

Weirdly, the scandal has made me more interested in Serie A, even though one of the three teams that I have any sort of random affection for (Fiorentina—the others being Roma and the pink unis!) is in the thick of the nastiness. Why? I can't really say, unless it's due to some dark fascination with operatic intrigue. And, I guess, the prospect that a fresh face will hoist the Scudetto now that Juve and (effectively) FC Berlusconi are out of the running.

Lynda said...

Weirdly, Italy's last World Cup victory in 1982 followed a huge match-fixing scandal (by a couple years, I think, but still, they were reeling from it--had to get their striker unsuspended for the tournament). So maybe they just perform well in adversity? Perhaps they did it all for Gianluca Pessotto?

Like you, I find myself more interested post-scandal as well, in my case partly because of a hopefully fresh slate. I wonder if the severity of the judgments will discourage further attempts at match-fixing for a while or only make them more discreet and clever about their methods?

Zach Dundas said...

Looks like Lazio and Fiorentina have availed themselves of the little-known "Get Out of Jail Free Card" rule. But does this mean Fiorentina is back in the Champions League?