In Italy, a Soccer Scandal Casts a Shadow Over Euro 2012

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Valery Hache / AFP / Getty Images

Italy's Domenico Criscito poses before their friendly football match Italy vs Cameroon, on March 03, 2010 at Louis II stadium in Monaco

When the Italian national soccer team takes the field next week to compete in the 2012 European Championship, it will be one man short. Just after sunrise on May 28, Italian police swept into the squad's training camp to question Domenico Criscito, a 25-year-old defender who was a starter for Italy at the 2010 World Cup and was widely expected to start again in the upcoming tournament in Poland and Ukraine.

The raid, during which police searched Criscito's room, was part of a wide-ranging match-fixing scandal that has thus far implicated dozens of current players, former players, and coaches in Italy. On the same day investigators raided the training camp, police also arrested Stefano Mauri, the captain of Rome's Lazio club, and took another 13 people into custody. Others were placed under house arrest, notified they were under investigation, or had their houses or offices raided. Police searched the home of Antonio Conte, the star manager who led Juventus to Italy's Serie A championship last month. Another Euro 2012 player, Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci, is also said to be under investigation, according to Italian news reports.

"This is the worst scandal in Italian football history, and that's saying something," says John Foot, a professor of modern Italian history at University College London and the author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football, which includes a chapter on the sport's scandals in Italy. "Every time I do a new edition (of the book), it gets bigger and bigger and bigger," he adds.

The explosion of allegations has shaken the world of Italian football, which has watched in horror as the trail of corruption has climbed the ranks of the sport, from the arrests of a series of minor league and retired players exactly a year ago, on June 1, 2011, to Monday's blockbuster raids. "I wonder if it wouldn't benefit all those who follow this sport if for two or three years there was a total suspension of this game," Italy's Prime Minister, Mario Monti, said the day after the latest arrests, adding that he was speaking on a personal level, not recommending government policy. "It's particularly sad when a world, such as sport, that should express high values is guilty of the most reprehensible ones such as treachery, illegality and deceit."

The web of corruption, in which players and coaches are accused of taking money to arrange the outcomes of matches, is so vast in scope, it's alleged to involve middlemen in Eastern Europe all the way to moneymen in Singapore. In Italy, the scandal has also cast a light on the country's everyday sporting culture, in which teams sometimes exchange favors, for instance offering to draw a game when it might benefit both teams. "Better two wounded than one dead," Gianluigi Buffon, the national team's captain, said during a television interview a few days before the arrests. The match fixers "didn't invent anything," says Marco Mensurati, author of Calciopoli: the Collapse and Restoration of a Corrupt System. "They found a terrain that was already fertile."

Of course, Italy is not alone in Europe — or the rest of the world for that matter. But Italy's scandal remains by far the largest on the continent. "This is a society in general that has a lot of problem with political and economic corruption and so it's not so surprising that it happens in the biggest sport, which is also an enormous business," says Foot. "The fact that now you can bet on anything, that it's a globalized economy, that the money involved is enormous, that's going to have an influence on a lot sports."

In Italy, being placed under investigation — or even being arrested — doesn't necessarily result in charges, and it will likely be years before any resulting trials plays out; the criminal process triggered by a 2006 scandal, in which teams rigged the selection of referees, is still ongoing. But the allegations will nonetheless have more immediate implications, as the sport's national governing body will be forced to start dishing out sanctions as early as next week.

So far, the only casualty remains Criscito, who was passed over for the Euro 2012 tournament because of the raids. But many of the involved players and teams risk suspensions, fines and demotions. On Friday, Italy's coach Cesare Prandelli told the Italian sports channel RaiSport that he would understand if the team had to drop out of the European Championship. "If you told us that for the good of football we should not participate, it wouldn't be a problem for me," he said. "There are things that I believe are more important."