Scandals spiraling out of control in Italy


ROME (AP) – Millions of Italian soccer fans watch in despair as a scandal sweeping the nation’s favorite sport unfolds, with each day bringing fresh details of alleged match-fixing, illegal betting and manipulation of referee assignments.

Italy has a history of scandals in politics, business and sports alike. But this case, coming weeks before the start of the World Cup in Germany, is hitting harder than most.

“To me, these two years should be wiped off as far as soccer is concerned,” said Alessandro Nesta, an AC Milan and Italy defender. “I hope justice is done.”

Prosecutors throughout the country are investigating widespread allegations of corruption at the heart of the game. At the center of the scandal is Turin-based powerhouse Juventus – the New York Yankees of Italy.

The club recently won its record 29th Italian league title.

Prosecutors allege former team general manager Luciano Moggi – nicknamed “Lucky Luciano” – created a widespread system that decided which referees would officiate Juventus games, which players were selected for the national team and even which players should be yellow carded.

Moggi also is accused of locking up a referee after a match Juventus lost in 2004 because he was unhappy with the officiating.

On Friday, the son of Italy coach Marcello Lippi and the son of a former Italian prime minister were placed under investigation. Davide Lippi and Giuseppe De Mita – son of former Premier Ciriaco De Mita – work for GEA World, a player agency said to control more than half the players in Serie A, Italy’s top league.

GEA is run by Alessandro Moggi, the son of Luciano Moggi.

Italian media reported that prosecutors are investigating claims Luciano Moggi tried to pressure Marcello Lippi to select players represented by GEA for the national team.

There was also a big soccer scandal at the end of the 1979-80 season, when match-fixing allegations led to AC Milan and Lazio being demoted to the second division.

Three other teams have been implicated in this one – AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio – but Juventus appears likely to face the harshest penalties. Demotion to Serie B – the equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues – and being stripped of its last two titles are possible.

Luciano Moggi was known as the man who pulled the strings in Italian soccer: If he wanted a player, he got him.

He managed to keep Juventus’ finances in order and its fans happy even as the club sold stars as Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane over the years. Victories kept coming.

Juventus has the most fans throughout the country, but the anti-Juve factor is equally strong.

Moggi’s fall was as spectacular as his rise.

His defense was that he just played along with the system.

“It wasn’t me who invented this soccer, it is the system that has always worked like this,” he said in an interview with the QN regional newspaper group. “Like other colleagues of mine, I only wanted to make sure that referees who were enemies of Juventus did not take the field and that all the matches would be taken charge of by serious professionals, who were good and above all impartial.”

The scandal exploded a few weeks ago when newspapers printed wiretap excerpts of phone calls Moggi made to various soccer officials, in which he was informed ahead of time which referees would officiate Juventus games.

Making things more complicated are phone transcripts suggesting Moggi traded favors with senior government officials. In one instance, according to the transcripts, Moggi attempted to pressure former Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu to hold games as scheduled despite the imminent death of Pope John Paul II last year.

In an earlier phone call, Pisanu asked Moggi to help third-division Torres, a club based in Pisanu’s native Sardinia, according to the transcripts. Pisanu has denied any misconduct, saying he’s been a friend of Moggi for 40 years.

The timing of the scandal, in the leadup to the June 9-July 9 World Cup, adds another wrinkle to the chaos. Three players on Italy’s squad are implicated in the scandal, and there have been calls for coach Lippi’s ouster.

Some commentators have drawn comparisons – perhaps optimistically – to the situation just before the 1982 World Cup. Back then, striker Paolo Rossi returned from a long disqualification for the betting scandal in 1980 and led Italy to victory – the country’s last title.

Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary German player who is now the chief organizer of the World Cup, offered a different view.

“This is the most serious soccer (scandal) I’ve seen in the entire world,” he said. “Italy will pay for it on the field at the World Cup. There is a psychological weight.”

Associated Press Writer Alessandra Rizzo contributed to this report.

AP-ES-05-26-06 1034EDT