Monday, May 15, 2006

It's over, and it's only just begun...

The weekend's final round of games had a surreal air, with clubs reasonably secure in the knowledge that the standings will soon have to be rewritten anyway, James Richardson reports...

It's over, and it's only just begun. Juventus wrapped up scudetto No29 with a 2-0 win over Reggina on Sunday. The game was played on neutral ground at Bari following trouble at Reggina's last home match, allowing the Turin giants to celebrate in front of 50,000 ecstatic southern fans. Many of these supporters had queued for hours for what, given that Bari play in Serie B, looked a rare chance to see the Old Lady up close. Given the way things are currently going, they and the rest of Italy's second division may soon be seeing a lot more of the old girl.

One of the strangest stories yet to emerge from the phone tapping scandal - the thousands of pages of recordings of Juve general manager Luciano Moggi and his allies discussing their manipulation of Italian football - features Moggi boasting of locking one of Italy's most senior referees and his linesman in their dressing room after a rare Juventus defeat last year. "I locked them in, and I took away the key," sniggers Luciano on his phone. "They'll have to break the door down!" "If I reported the incident," referee Gianluca Paparesta now comments, "they'd have run me out of the game." As fate would have it, Paparesta came face to face with Moggi again this Sunday as fourth official for the game in Bari. This time there was no question who's running out who.

Moggi has had to resign at Juve and is facing charges ranging from intimidation to kidnapping and criminal conspiracy. Juventus meanwhile stand accused of sporting fraud, as beneficiaries of what police have dubbed the "Moggi System". This consists of assigning friendly referees for Juve games, finding unfriendly ones for their rivals, and making sure future opponents were "softened up" with judicious use of the red card.

Juve aren't facing the music alone, however. Nine referees stand accused of being Moggi's foot soldiers. They include Massimo De Sanctis, who the Italian FA have now withdrawn from the World Cup. Forty-one people in total are being investigated, including senior officials at two other Serie A clubs, Lazio and Fiorentina, both of whose phone transcripts appear to show them "signing up" for the Moggi System. They and Juventus now stand a real chance of being relegated.

Sounds grim but at a guess, the worst is yet to come. Moggi, who broke press silence for the first time on Sunday to declare amid tears "They've murdered my soul!", will begin interrogation by police in Naples today. So far the spread of this scandal has been based on last year's phone transcripts, but what happens when Moggi decides to tell his version of the story? Stand by for Luciano to name as many names as possible because, with the evidence against him looking incontrovertible, he's expected to paint himself as just a small shark in a very dirty ocean.

Frankly there's no telling what accusations may emerge in the next few weeks. This weekend's final round of games therefore had a surreal air, as clubs competed for the two prizes left on offer - the title and the fourth Champions League place - reasonably secure in the knowledge that the standings will soon have to be rewritten anyway. For what it's worth, Fiorentina's 2-0 win at Chievo saw them tie up fourth place, which should see them enter the Champions League alongside Juve, Milan and Inter next season. Should! Roma, Lazio and Chievo should go into the UEFA Cup, and Messina, Lecce and Treviso should be relegated.

But who knows? Depending on the outcome of the investigations, Juventus, Lazio, Fiorentina and possibly even Milan could be penalised or relegated. This means the current eighth-placed finishers Palermo, who are currently facing the Intertoto Cup this August, could be involved in the Champions League instead.

All very exciting. Of course, the chances of the various investigations being settled by August are slimmer than Nicole Ritchie, what with the likely appeals and such. How next season can begin on schedule (on August 27) is anyone's guess, as we likely still won't know by then who should be in it. One possibility is that Serie A might actually return to the 18-team format enjoyed until two years ago, when another summer of scandal forced them to fit in two more clubs.

If so, it would be just one of the many plusses the upcoming summer might bring. And, bleak as the picture may be for the Italian game right now, there is in fact a tantalising vista on the other side of the next few months. A vista of a Serie A championship where the big clubs don't always get the better bounce of the ball, where outsiders (hey, even Inter) stand a chance just like in the old days, where whoever wins, we're quite sure it was because they had the better line-up, and not the bigger Rolodex. Pie in the sky? Maybe, but starting again from scratch is a rare and exhilarating opportunity for any league. For Serie A, it could prove the greatest blessing ever.


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