“Violent, Racist, Corrupt – Welcome to Italian Football.”


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The beautiful game
Jan. 10, 2003

Letters from Europe is a regular feature from Don Murray, Senior European Correspondent for CBC-TV News

It is the beautiful game played by the blue team – la squaddra azzurra. It is soccer in Italy, the subject of national frenzy every Sunday. This is when Italians gather to celebrate the rite of the calcio – the Italian league, the soccer equivalent of the NHL.

But the beautiful game is now looking distinctly tatty. It is dogged by crisis and scandal. This being Italy, these lurid episodes are often baptized with theatrical titles. The latest is the so-called “widows of the calcio” chapter. It broke into the public domain at the beginning of the year.

Since 1998 an Italian prosecutor, Raffaele Guariniello, has been investigating the premature deaths of former Italian professional soccer players over the past four decades. The figures, he says, are alarming. About 400 ex-players died in this period.

The prosecutor describes 70 of those deaths as suspect. There was an abnormally high rate of cancers and of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, far higher than in the general population. The prosecutor says he is treating these cases as ‘involuntary homicide’ – manslaughter.

But who is the culprit?

The trail begins in 1998, in July. In that month Zdenek Zeman gave an interview to an Italian magazine. Despite his Czech name and birth, he had lived and worked in Italy since 1968. In 1998 he was the manager of AS Roma, one of the big clubs in the calcio. He was known for his tactical genius and for his straight talk.

In the interview his talk was very straight. “Italian soccer has to move out of the drugstore,” he said. He then went on to point a finger directly at two of Italy’s star players, Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero. Both men played for another major club, Juventus, owned by the powerful Agnelli family. “I was surprised by the thighs of Vialli and the sudden bulking up of Del Piero. I thought that such changes only occurred after years of weight work.”

Zeman knew that he was dealing with a taboo subject – drugs in soccer. He was immediately attacked by Gianni Agnelli, the head of Fiat and Juventus and one of the most powerful men in Italy. Agnelli accused him of colossal ingratitude. Juventus had saved Zeman’s uncle from communism by bringing him to Italy to play for the team. It was Zeman’s uncle who got Zeman out of Czechoslovakia.

Zeman batted the charge right back. His uncle had left his country before the communists took power. Agnelli was talking from ignorance.

Zeman’s comments forced the authorities to investigate. A police search uncovered 280 types of drugs in a room in a stadium where Juventus trained. Prosecutor Guariniello began his judicial inquiry. He got little help from the soccer authorities.

His preliminary conclusion this January he framed in the form of a question: “Why are so many soccer players dying at such a young age – the average is 39 – from Lou Gehrig’s disease? Is it because they were required to play with painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs and to take hits when they should have been rested? We’ve got to get to the bottom of this because this disease is beginning to look like an occupational illness for professional soccer players.”

Despite the scandal and investigations the calcio carried on. It was, after all, a key national institution. The fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, once lauded Italian soccer as a symbol of the country’s glory and power. It was part of Italy’s “patriotic tradition.” It had an “educational and social function.” It was a key component in military preparation. But that was in the days when the squaddra azzurra was winning World Cups.

It’s been some time since Italy won its last World Cup. For that matter, it’s been seven years since an Italian team from the calcio has won a European club competition. What the calcio has won are lurid headlines for the wrong sort of behaviour.

Here’s one: “Violent, Racist, Corrupt – Welcome to Italian Football.”

Violence? Italy has supplanted England as the home of battles in the stands and in the streets before, during and after matches. There have been ambushes, stabbings and beatings. There have been attacks on players by their own supporters, assaults on players’ relatives and a firebomb attack on a team bus.

Racism? Black players are verbally abused on a regular basis. A visiting English team complained officially to UEFA, the European governing council of football, when two of its players were subjected to such abuse.

Corruption? Well, what about the team from Florence, Fiorentina, unable to pay its bills after one of its owners was accused of massive embezzlement. The team was relegated to an also-ran division. Or the foreign players with false Italian passports so their clubs could bypass the quota system on foreigners. In an elegant solution, the Italian courts suddenly struck down the quota system, so the illegal ‘Italians’ could carry on playing. The criminal passport scam was simply dismissed as the price of doing business in the calcio.

Here’s another headline: “Calcio in a fix over drug use.” Despite the investigations and the criminal inquiries, drug use apparently continues unabated. At least eight players have tested positive in the last two years for using the steroid nandroline. More than 40 others were reported to have shown traces of the drug but not to the level judged unacceptable.

To add to the mess, the calcio is running short of money, television money. The league had to postpone the opening of this season by two weeks when Italian television networks refused to pay the huge sum it was demanding to broadcast the games. Without those sums many teams wouldn’t have the money to pay their millionaire players.

But the calcio has friends in high places, indeed in the highest place. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, owns one of the big teams. A deal was worked out. The calcio is back in business.

And what of the man who blew the whistle? On the day after Christmas 2002, Zdenek Zeman lost his last job in Italian football. He’d been coaching a lowly club in the second division. He was abruptly fired.

His decline had started right after his interview. In the spring of 1999 he was fired from his first division team, despite its finishing fifth. He had to go abroad, to Turkey, to find work. His dismissal last December seems final. No other club is ready to touch him.

It’s cold comfort to Zeman that, after his comments, two senior officials of the Juventus club were charged with illegally administering banned substances to their players.

Zeman himself committed another violation, more readily associated with another famous Italian organization. He broke the code of omerta, the code of silence that covered the sins of the calcio.

For that he has been punished


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Total Bastard
Jun 28, 2001
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Unlucky TTP punters

Fans throw seats onto field


TURIN, Italy -- The Serie A match between Torino and AC Milan on Saturday was abandoned in the second half after crowd trouble -- the latest incident in a violent season in Italy.

With Milan leading 3-0 at the break, Torino fans attempted to invade the pitch shortly after the restart and the game was briefly halted.

But after continued clashes between fans and police, who used tear gas, the match was stopped in the 64th minute with several players affected by the gas.

The players and match officials then returned to the dressing rooms and after waiting around half an hour, referee Luca Palanca called the game off.

Milan is expected to be awarded the game and Torino is almost certain to face heavy sanctions from soccer authorities.


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Jun 30, 2001
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Apparently the Torino fans were also throwing refrigerators onto the pitch.

The diary of violence

September 23: Roma's French defender Jonathan Zebina is attacked by fans outside the club's training ground following a home loss to Modena.

November 18: A Serie B match between Cagliari and Messina was abandoned after Messina's goalkeeper, Emanuele Manitta, was beaten unconscious by a fan.

On the same day in Serie A, there was violence after Como had a goal disallowed during their home fixture against Lazio, while in the evening fans and police clashed ahead of the Turin derby between Juventus and Torino.

November 29: Napoli defender Francesco Baldini was attacked by a group of fans on mopeds as he was driving home from a Serie B match against Palermo. Baldini was forced to pull over after the attackers smashed his windscreen with iron bars with glass flying into his face.

December 18: Crowd disturbances force the abandonment of Como's home match against Udinese in Serie A. Como fans reacted violently to the awarding of a penalty against their team in the second half, throwing flares and trying to invade the pitch.

Como's Brazilian defender Juarez was hit on the head by a missile as the players returned to the changing rooms. Fifteen minutes later the players returned to the pitch, but were again met with a hail of objects and the game was called off - Como were banned from playing at home for four games.

January 13: Thirteen policemen were injured, one seriously, following clashes with Atalanta fans at their game against Como played in Reggio Emilia.

January 28: Gianluca Grassadonia, a defender with Serie B club Cagliari had his car set on fire in apparent retaliation for scoring an own goal. Within days the club sold him to Serie A side Chievo.

February 22: The Serie A match between Torino and AC Milan was abandoned in the second half after crowd trouble.


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Dec 1, 2001
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Derby Day Sponsor!!!

From www.inter.it

Inter v AC Milan matches are special occasions for millions of football fans all over the world, but the 253rd edition of the derby of all derbies has a new 'edge' to it.

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Back to footballing matters, and if we limit the number of Madonnina derbies to the Serie A, Saturday evening's clash is the 160th between the two sides. Inter have won 57 derbies, while the Rossoneri have won 51. The Nerazzurri have also scored more goals than their cross-city rivals: 235-215.

If all goes according to plan for both Inter and AC Milan in the Champions League, there could be two more derbi es before the season is out, but in the meantime let's concentrate on getting three points from this one...


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Sep 5, 2001
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Thanks Zenga.

Your brilliant and witty insight into the violent, racist and corrupt world of Italian football is amazing.


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