If You Rig It, They Will Come

How capitalism just might save Italian soccer


In the summer of 1982, Italian soccer supporters discovered their very own Lazarus, and liked what they saw. Paolo Rossi, the center forward of Turin's mighty Juventus team, was brought into the national selection for that year's World Cup in Spain. Rossi played indifferently in the first round of games, but in three matches during the key second phase, against Brazil, Poland, and in the final against West Germany, he scored six goals, helping Italy win its first World Cup since 1938.

The thing was that Rossi the champion, the conqueror of Madrid, only played because the Italian soccer federation had cut a year out of his three-year ban from the sport for match-fixing while at the Perugia club. The decision to resurrect him was pragmatic, and it worked; but it also underlined the fuzzy boundary between corruption and success in Italian soccer. But where there is persistent vagueness there is also usually nemesis. It has now come in the form of a major scandal in Italy's professional league, even as the country's team prepares for the World Cup beginning next week in Germany.

While the scandal, or scandals, seemed mainly to involve Juventus in the early stages of exposure, it could well spread to include the Florence team, one of two Milanese sides, a Roman team, and perhaps more. Italian magistrates are looking at several files. In Naples, they are verifying whether the former Juventus general manager, Luciano Moggi, was allowed by the Italian federation's top refereeing official to pick pliable referees for Juventus matches. In an interview Moggi all but admitted the charge was true, and tried to justify his acts. Juventus, Italy's most successful side and this year's champion, has long been accused of buying off game officials. This prompted former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns the AC Milan club, to recently declare, "We demand they give us back the two league titles that are our due. We're tired of suffering injustice." The only problem is that AC Milan, too, is now thought to have engaged in the same practice.

A separate investigation in Parma is looking into whether some players participated in illegal betting, with magistrates focusing on the talented Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who is also the national keeper. Magistrates want to know if players wagered on their own games. Buffon, who allegedly served as middleman in the betting process, has said that he only bet on foreign games, at a time when this was still legal.

A third investigation in Turin, this time by the financial police, is trying to uncover possible irregularities in the transfer of players to Juventus. Police recently searched the homes of two team members, defender Fabio Cannavaro and the Swedish attacker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as well as those of Moggi and another former club official. The players and teams involved in the transfers have all denied wrongdoing.

But it's the fourth investigation that is perhaps the most explosive, because, if wrongdoing is proven, it could show an institutionalized pattern of high-level manipulation, affecting much more than the few teams cited. Rome magistrates are looking into the behavior of GEA, Italy's largest and most dominant representative agency for soccer players and coaches. It is headed by Moggi's son Alessandro, but also employs scions of other prominent political or business families, including the son of Marcelo Lippi, the national team coach. There are suspicions that Luciano Moggi tried to pressure Lippi into choosing Juventus players for the national side, something Lippi denies; but more importantly, that the agency was used as Moggi's instrument of control over players, coaches, and the overall transfer market, giving him tremendous power to affect the outcome of matches. It has also been reported that players were intimidated into signing contracts with GEA, otherwise they risked being blacklisted.

As the sordid layers are peeled away, soccer fans and players are hoping the scandal will bring about a major cleansing of the Italian game. Already, the soccer federation has named a new commissioner, Guido Rossi, to oversee the process, though at 75 he is only there for the interval until a new commissioner is found. A common complaint heard is that money spawned the present crisis, that the beauty of the game was not for the first time sullied by cupidity. Therefore, the only way to resolve the problem is to prevent "financial interests" from dominating Italian soccer as they have for so long.

In fact, it's exactly the contrary assessment that might have a chance of saving the sport in Italy: far from curtailing financial interests, would-be reformers must allow them to proliferate, so that anybody can partake in the business of soccer, but transparently. The problem was never money, but that Moggi, GEA, the teams cooking game results, and corrupt officials in the Italian federation, had cornered the soccer market. The answer is not to exacerbate such distortions by denying the advantages of capitalism, but by taking capitalism to the limit and using it to crack open the notoriously closed circle that governs Italian soccer affairs, through measures allowing fair competition.

Juventus has already learned that markets can strike back hard. By May 31, the price of a team share on the Milan stock exchange had tumbled by more than half of its value compared to what it was before the scandal broke, a steady decline that has forced exchange officials to repeatedly suspend trading. The Agnelli family, which has a controlling stake in Juventus, demanded that its entire board (including Moggi) resign, and named the head of their investment company, IFIL (which controls 60 percent of Juventus stock), to take over management duties. But that's small peanuts compared to what may yet come. Because of the match-fixing, there is a very high likelihood that Juventus will be relegated to Italy's second or even third soccer division. The opportunity cost of lost television broadcasting and advertising revenues would be colossal, while the team would also lose its most illustrious players and its renowned coach.

But perhaps most unsettling will be the impact the scandal has on disillusioned fans, those who are in it for the exquisiteness of the sport and who have turned Juventus into the most popular team in Italy. Their disgust will cost the most in the longer term. To wean them back, Italian soccer officials, the Agnellis, players, politicians, and many more will need to introduce openness and integrity into what had become a seedy old-boy's club, so that everyone can dream of kicking for profits.