Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Lippi fights to keep focused as the sky falls in

Each time Italy's coach thinks the scandal has blown itself out, another revelation flares up.

By tradition, the heavens beneath which Italy's Azzuri train for a World Cup is of a blue as deep as the team's shirts. But this campaign at the retreat in Coverciano on the edge of Florence began under a weeping, leaden sky. "Even God wants to piss on us," shrugged a security official at the gates which may keep out curious fans, but afford no protection against a hurricane of corruption and scandal.

Normally those fans wave flags and line up for autographs, but now clutches of supporters come to jeer and whistle their disapproval. "Champions or Mercenaries?" reads the graffiti outside. Of course there is a tribalism in this: the scandals affect mighty Juventus above all, arch-enemy of the local team, Fiorentina. "But usually, at this time, we are all Italians," observed Mauro, the security man.

The squad resembles a group of serious artisans trying to perfect their skills in a stockade while a high and highly distracting drama - compelling and squalid - unfolds around them. Indeed it is hard to believe this team are trying to focus on, and prepare tactically for, a competition at the zenith of football, about which barely a word is spoken at Coverciano.

Over the past few days the scandals, which have captivated the most football-crazy nation on earth, have galloped from their point of departure, when Juventus's general manager Luciano Moggi was accused of fixing referees. With the Old Lady facing relegation to Serie B, the ousted prime minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to seize the moral high ground but then the offices of his club, Milan, were raided by financial police. Scores of other teams are also to be investigated for alleged falsification of balance sheets. Italy's coach Marcello Lippi is under pressure after his son Davide was put under criminal investigation on Friday for alleged illicit finance and "threats of violence" during consultancy work with the GEA agency, which represents some 200 players and coaches. The Italians have an expression: figlio di papa - daddy's boy - and GEA is run by none other than Moggi's son, Alessandro.

The scandals took their most important symbolic stride when the Milanese judge Francesco Saverio Borelli was last week appointed to head the criminal investigation. The insinuation is crystal clear: Borelli spearheaded the operation codenamed Mani Puliti - Clean Hands - which put an entire political class under arrest in the 90s. The present investigation is inevitably dubbed Piedi Puliti - Clean Feet. This is more than a joke: Clean Hands began with a single warrant, signed by Borelli in Milan, then spread like wildfire across the political system, and football is providing kindling just as dry. Berlusconi, many of whose friends and political allies were caught in Borelli's net, jibed: "They've chosen their referee, just like Moggi".

The names of players are starting to surface as potential witnesses, most prominently Fabio Cannavaro, captain of Juventus and of Italy, right. And so the usual relaxed rules of engagement between players and battalions of reporters have changed. Training normally concludes with endless chiacciere, or chit-chat, but a diktat has gone out: all interviews must be supervised and recorded, tapes made available to Lippi.

But, like most rules in Italy, these are made to be broken, precisely because they involve irresistible chiacciere. As players leave practice little huddles form, indiscretions are proffered. Asked if the players talk about the scandals, Alessandro Nesta says: "We talk about little else. The whole business is a betrayal of those who love football. I want to turn back and smell the air of football as it was when I was little."

"We are trying to do our work in a correct and professional way," said Milan's midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, "but all this is very distracting. However, I think we have an opportunity. It's a chance to change Italian football, to clean up Italian football."

Filippo Inzaghi, despite his puckish demeanour, pleads into the microphones: "From today, if you want to make us a gift, please just talk about football. We have to try and think about the football, about the World Cup, and it's not easy. We understand the gravity of the problem. But the players are the least to blame for what is happening." His club-mate Andrea Pirlo echoed Inzaghi's plea of innocence: "The players are apart from all this - the cleanest and healthiest part of the game".

"It's been a very bad start," admits Gianluca Zambrotta of Juventus. "There's no denying it. To be a serious contender for the World Cup you have to have a degree of tranquillity. But we're working hard for that, to focus on what we have to do, which is to play our game."

Then there is Juve's goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, with his own set of problems, summonsed while at dinner in the retreat by magistrates from Parma to discuss alleged betting, which is against the rules. Once back he ploughed through the scrum of cameras, head down, only on Thursday affording himself a few remarks, after he was cleared to go to Germany. "Now I can concentrate on the World Cup", he said, "with no other thought in my head."

The high point came when, looking and sounding like something out of Gladiator, Cannavaro brazenly paraphrased the title his compatriot Lorenzo da Ponte penned for an opera by Mozart: Cosi Fan Tutte - they all do it. "This is not a matter limited to the managers of Juventus," said Cannavaro, straightforwardly, "the whole system of football functions like this."

This was last Wednesday, when Berlusconi and Milan were still preening themselves, and Cannavaro launched an astonishing attack. He asked why Juventus's Moggi had been wiretapped and not Milan's vice-president, Adriano Galliani, who is also president of the right-wing Northern League - part of Berlusconi's former governing coalition - a former executive of Berlusconi's giant Mediaset company and convener of the European G14 super-league project. "Is only Moggi's telephone being tapped?" jeered Cannavaro. "It strikes me that not a single call has emerged from the telephone of Adriano Galliani."

Unknown to Cannavaro, financial police investigating false accounting were raiding Milan's (and Internazionale's) offices as he spoke, and Galliani's phone had indeed been tapped. But Cannavaro's outburst was so unexpected that the special commissioner drafted to run Italy's now decapitated football federation, Guido Rossi, demanded he either retract or be stripped of the captaincy for the World Cup.

Next morning, Thursday, the team paraded their new stylish suits, specially designed by Dolce & Gabbana. Cannavaro looked striking but no one wanted to know about the glitz of alta moda, only the contents of a piece of paper read out solemnly by the federation spokesman in which Cannavaro said: "I did not explain myself well," that this was "a moment for reflection for the world of football" and he had "every faith" in the judicial investigation.

Warfare between Juventus and Milan is unfortunate given that Italy's first XI is, with the probable exceptions of Fiorentina's Luca Toni and Roma's Francesco Totti, effectively a fusion of players from the two clubs. But in their private remarks the players show a maturity their masters would do well to learn from. While Berlusconi demands that two Juventus titles be rescinded and given to Milan, Gattuso said: "I don't want those titles, and if the judge grants them to us, I certainly won't celebrate them."

"Juventus won those championships on the pitch", said Alberto Gilardino, also of Milan, "and here, we play together." His team-mate Inzaghi said: "It's not easy, but we have to be a single group. It's something that happens on the pitch, it happens at table."

Lippi had exuded inner calm for most of the week, sauntering between the practice pitches and his friends in the press packs. The coach is known for his focus on "the mental game", and before the scandals broke talked about building a "club spirit" among the national side.

In conversation with the Guardian, he admitted: "It's true, I have two jobs: one is to train the team for the World Cup, which is what I should be doing, and the other is to try and soften the repercussions of all this on the players. There is enormous pressure but I have to make sure it doesn't affect them, not even subconsciously."

Then, on Friday, his son was put under criminal investigation. Lippi had intended to use the next day to move away from scandal and towards tactics for the competition. Instead he faced the most awkward moment - to date - of a career that has garnered five scudetti with Juventus. He slammed his new mobile phone on the table (the old one's number having been published in a magazine) and presented himself as a father, an elder and master of football and a man wanting to lead Italy's national passion and pastime to Germany.

"Of course I have spoken to Davide; he is calm and bitter." he said, then a sharp change of subject: "It matters not what work you do, but how you do it. These have been important days; I have seen some excellent work, and great will and determination among the boys. Now for the World Cup - into the wolf's mouth." With that, Lippi and the team adjourned for a special guest appearance on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire quiz show.

"On the pitch we just have to put it all behind us," says Gattuso. "Everyone knows that we have a duty, an obligation, to the country, to the fans and to Italian football. For goodness sake, we're competing for the Coppa del Mondo not a coppa di nonno [literally grandpa's cup, the Italian term for a coffee ice cream cone]."


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