September 2, 2006

Italian World Cup Victory Undermined by Corruption

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Mi dispiace, Italia — but you are no stranger to corruption.

From the ancient plots against Caesar to the Pazzi conspiracies in Renaissance Florence, Italy has meant misdeeds and malfeasance for centuries. We blissfully recall crooked popes on land-grabbing crusades and fascist dictators hobnobbing with Hitler.

As the great Harry Lime observed in The Third Man, “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.”

Today, as corrupt as ever, Italy has won the World Cup.

The eyes of the world witnessed Italy’s Azzurri claim the most coveted trophy in all of sport. Legendary arch-rivals Germany and France were conquered in a fashion worthy of the Romans. From the Spanish steps to the Sardinian beaches, Italians wept with joy for the national team.

Yet, the celebration was an uneasy one.

Before Zidane’s outburst sealed the Italian victory, a creeping scandal was poisoning the nation’s top pro league, Serie A. At the same time, controversy surrounded Romano Prodi’s razor-thin victory over Silvio Berlusconi in the general election.

Prodi’s slim triumph proved that many Italian people were not prepared to give up on corruption. Berlusconi — defeated by less than 25,000 votes — governed Italy with a Machiavellian cocktail of greed, bribery and a ruthless obsession with power. Berlusconi once admitted he got into politics to avoid jail. This contemptible swine is also the owner of Serie A powerhouse AC Milan — a position he openly admits is designed to curry favor with voters.

By the time Gli Azzurri took the field for the World Cup in July, Italian investigators were in the process of uncovering the worst scandal in the history of soccer. Luciano “Lucky” Moggi quit his GM job at Juventus amid match-fixing and bribery allegations. Italy coach Marcello Lippi and a few players from the team flew to Rome to face doping investigators in between World Cup games. Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon — among others — is yet to have his name cleared.
It was the Borgias, the Black Sox, Barry Bonds and Halliburton all rolled into one.

The irony of Italy’s finest international triumph accompanying its worst international embarrassment is not difficult to discern. Juventus — the champions of Italy — is now in the minor-league Serie B with a point deficit so colossal it will be out of the top league for at least the next two years. Lazio, Fiorentina and — naturally — AC Milan were also implicated, with all but Berlusconi’s team joining Juve in Italian soccer’s netherworld.

How do we explain Serie A’s dramatic plunge from le stelle? Once the most glamorous league in Europe, Serie A boasted names like Maradona and ruled soccer on the continent for decades. Yet, as success made the Italian clubs amongst the richest on Earth, greed spread like the Plague — from the owners at the top to the guys calling offsides on the field.

The present state of European soccer makes Major League Baseball look like a paragon of financial parity. Teams like Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona engage in bidding wars for premium athletes, strong-arming smaller teams out of contention while simultaneously inflating an already preposterous transfer market. Without some kind of European-wide spending cap, La Liga, the Premiership and the Bundesliga will meet the same fate as Serie A — and become hollow shells of what they once were.

Even in disgrace, Berlusconi still knows how to make a headline. Recently, AC Milan proposed a patently ludicrous bid for Barcelona star Ronaldinho. Ronaldinho rejected the offer, and why wouldn’t he? Italy may be world champions, but soccer in Italy will never be the same.

As Machiavelli said, “It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.” Now it’s up to the Italians to honor their title and bring sportsmanship and respect back to Serie A. In bocca al lupo.

Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Senior Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Friday this semester.