Scandal threatening to bury Italy's Cup dream

If a week is a long time in football, a couple of months has been an eternity for Italians fans who until recently had been looking forward to a summer of glory at the World Cup.

In March, Italy crowed confidently after Marcello Lippi's talented young Azzurri served notice of their emerging threat with a scintillating 4-1 rout of tournament hosts Germany in a friendly.

But the sudden eruption of a wide-ranging corruption scandal in the closing weeks of the Serie A season has rocked the Italian game to its foundation, turning the mood of burgeoning optimism into one of plunging pessimism.

The various probes into allegations of fraud, match-fixing and illegal betting have now reached the door of the Azzurri's dressing room, embroiling Lippi as well as goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and defender Fabio Cannavaro.

Lippi, who is not under investigation in connection with any of the allegations, was questioned for three hours last Friday as part of the probe into GEA World, a sports management agency run by Alessandro Moggi, the son of disgraced former Juventus chief Luciano.

"I was questioned as a witness," Lippi stressed in a statement released by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), whose boss Franco Carraro has already resigned in connection with the scandal.

"I responded to the prosecutor's questions. From this point on I will think only of the national team," added Lippi, who earlier in the week had shrugged off questions about the various probes.

"I have nothing to fear from the investigations and I have never thought of resigning."

Even so, pressure is mounting on Lippi and there have been calls in the media for him to step down.

Juventus and Italy keeper Buffon meanwhile has been questioned after newspaper allegations that he placed illegal bets on Serie A matches when he was at Parma. Buffon has denied any wrongdoing.

Buffon's team-mate Cannavaro saw his house raided by police investigating transfer dealings at Juventus although it is not clear what the player's involvement was thought to be.

The danger for Italy's World Cup hopes is that the scandal will rumble on throughout the tournament, leaving Lippi and his squad sagging under the weight of relentless questioning by the media.

World Cup organizer Franz Beckenbauer said he hoped Italy's campaign would not suffer but worried that the scandal might take a toll on morale.

"It probably won't hit the Italian national team, who are one of the favourites most people would choose at this World Cup," Beckenbauer said.

"But the players will have the distraction of being asked about the scandal. It could put a dampener on team spirit, but I hope it doesn't," he added.

A crumb of comfort for Italian fans could be a historical omen. The Azzurri ended up winning the 1982 World Cup in the wake of the last major corruption scandal to hit Serie A.

The difference between now and 1980 however is that the investigations had been completed and wrapped up by the time the World Cup rolled around, Paolo Rossi returning from a ban in time to lead the Italians to victory in Spain.

If Italy's players can put the scandal on the backburner they will be confident of mounting a challenge in Germany, where they should in theory emerge from Group E ahead of the Czech Republic, United States and Ghana.

Unbeaten in 16 matches leading into the competition, they have claimed some notable scalps along the way, beating a highly rated Dutch team last year as well as Germany.

Lippi has meanwhile talked up Italy's chances.

"I would put us up there with Brazil - we're inferior to no team," he said before the scandals erupted. "Brazil are the favourites and behind them I would put us, followed by Argentina."

Buffon, speaking before the illegal betting allegations broke, was similarly bullish.

"How do I think we will do at the World Cup? I'm very optimistic and we've set our hearts on winning it. I'm 95 per cent certain we can lift the trophy."

A note of caution for Italy's fans however is the fact that the Azzurri have performed miserably at their last two major tournaments.

They were eliminated in the first round at Euro 2004, and were bundled out in the last 16 by South Korea at the last World Cup.

Unless they really have rediscovered the spirit of 1982, Italy's confidence might be exposed as mere bravado.

Source: China Daily

People's Daily Online ---