With a major Italian football scandal ushering in the World Cup in Germany, which begins in just over a week’s time, it is often difficult to remember there is more to the sport than money; there is also that old and somewhat ruffled phantom, the beauty of the game.
Aficionados have long been uncomfortable with commerce barging into the world of football. The aesthetics of the game have rarely been tolerant of the baser motives behind the sport. Many a team, from Barcelona to Inter Milan to Manchester United, to name only a few, has at one time or another been forced to nourish supporters’ refusal to see their teams depicted merely as business enterprises. Barcelona refuses advertisement on its shirts; Inter Milan’s tifosi stick to a myth that the team is politically on the left, unlike the supposed right-wing image of cross-town rival AC Milan. And United backers took none too kindly to the team’s purchase by an American magnate, seen as informed about finances but not football.
But business and football have always walked hand in hand, particularly in the past three decades, feeding off each other relentlessly, indeed inconceivable without each other: football needs money to supply the teams’ and supporters’ growing habit (a fact purists only cagily admit to), while investors are drawn to the magnificent cash cow that is football.
So what is one to make of the terrible scandal that has shaken Italian football, and which threatens to engulf the national team, the Squadra Azzura, as it makes a bid for a fourth World Cup title? In May, as the Turin team Juventus was preparing to win its 29th league title, prosecutors alleged that its general manager, Luciano Moggi, had conspired with senior officials in Italian football to pick referees for matches in which the Turin team was playing, to ensure victory. Moggi is also suspected of having pressured players into joining his son’s representation agency, and is said to have influenced the national coach, Marcelo Lippi, in his selection of capped players (Lippi denied it.) But the truly serious charge was that Moggi stood atop a pyramid of individuals – team owners, league officials, and politicians – that manipulated Italian football for personal gain. Several other teams seem to have also profited from illicit deals.
Has commerce tarnished football?
The scandal will revive complaints that damned commerce has tarnished Italian football, perhaps irredeemably. Certainly, Italy has always been corrupt on that front, with even a former star, Paolo Rossi, the high scorer in the 1982 World Cup, having been banned from the sport for a time because of match-fixing. Certainly, too, where there is as much money as in international football, there is bound to be much abuse. But the real question is whether commerce merits the blame.
One would have to go into arguments pertaining to culture to accurately answer that question. Perhaps some cultures are more comfortable with vice than others. Italy surely needs tighter control mechanisms in the naming of referees to matches, and greater oversight in the financial dealings of teams, which have been poorly managed, pushing leading clubs into bankruptcy. In that foul climate, cheating is natural.
However, the market can also be pitiless in its revenge. As news of the scandal broke, Juventus shares fell by 50 percent of their value, forcing the Agnelli family that owns the team to appoint a new chief executive. The family had earlier demanded that the entire Juventus board, including Moggi, resign. If the team is relegated to Serie B, a distinct possibility, millions of dollars of sponsorship and television money would be lost, not to mention the opportunity cost provoked by the backlash from disgusted supporters. Worse, the scandal will doubtless extend to affect the shares of other major teams being traded, amid a general sense in Italy that corruption tends to embrace everyone. Italian football may have to melt down before being recast as something more lawful and respectable.
Not commerce, but its misuse
This would be traumatic, but a clean break is not a bad thing. Italian football was shattered not by commerce, but by its misuse – through illicit market manipulations ensuring the competition was tilted in favor of the wealthy teams. These teams generate the most money, but also fall the hardest. Commerce may have made Italy’s latest sporting disgrace more likely, but only by strengthening commercial regulations that ensure decisions are more transparent and officials more accountable, will the country’s football be reborn stronger.