by Trevor Whenham - 05/18/2006
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Every time that you look at baseball and think that the steroid problems, the contract squabbles and everything else that has plagued the game for the last ten years is bad, you just have to look at Italian soccer and you will feel a whole lot better. Italy's top domestic league, Serie A, has been rocked by a wave of scandals, each of which is more unbelievable than the one before it.
By the time the situations are resolved it could have a wide-ranging impact on the future of the league. North American bettors could also be affected. According to Greg Jorssen, a spokesman for Bodog, the Serie A is the third most popular league for betting behind the English and Italian leagues.
At the heart of the scandal is an investigation into 20 matches that may have been fixed during the 2004-05 season, including 19 from Serie A and one from Serie B. Four top clubs - Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina - are reportedly implicated. Wiretaps exist that allegedly show officials from those teams trying to influence the assignment of referees for their matches. Offices for the Italian soccer federation and the national referees association have been searched by Italian law enforcement officials. There are reportedly 41 people under investigation, including team officials, referees, federation officials and a journalist. One of the Italians referees had his World Cup accreditation withdrawn after he was implicated.
Juventus is the club that is most implicated, and there clearly seems to be fire under the smoke. The entire board of the club resigned last Thursday, including managing director Antonio Giraudo and general director Luciano Moggi. Moggi was caught on tape talking to national association officials about referee assignments. Joining those men on the unemployment line is Franco Carraro, the President of the national federation. He resigned last week, along with his vice-president. Juventus won their second consecutive Serie A championship on Sunday, but speculation is mounting that the two titles could be stripped as a result of this situation. They may even be relegated to Serie B.
The implications and problems don't end there for Moggi. He is under investigation for kidnapping charges after referees were locked in a room after Juventus lost to Reggina. Speculation is that the containment was punishment because Juventus hadn't won when they were supposed to. Corruption runs in the Moggi family, too. His son, Alessandro, runs a sports management firm called GEA World. He and his father, along with two employees are being investigated for "unfair competition with use of violence and threats". More than 200 Italian players and coaches are connected to GEA and may be involved in the intimidation.
If match-fixing and intimidation weren't enough, we can through some illegal gambling into the mix, too. Gianluigi Buffon is the world's most expensive goaltender and one of the biggest stars of both Juventus and the Italian team. He is also a gambler who makes Rick Tocchet look like an amateur. Buffon is alleged to have bet more than 2 million Euros on various sports. He insists that he didn't bet on Italian soccer or Juventus, but an investigation continues. There was some doubt whether he would be named to the World Cup squad because of the situation, but he has been included.
The incredible thing is that this is not the first time that a major scandal has hit Italian soccer. Both AC Milan and Lazio were demoted to Serie B in 1979-90 after they were implicated in a match-fixing situation. That precedent points towards the likely fate of Juventus.
So what will this mean to bettors who like to play Serie A? We'll have to wait and see before we know for sure, but it could have a significant impact. First, if the investigation drags on into next season it could prove to be a major distraction for the league, causing uncertainty. More specifically, though, it will be hard to gauge at the beginning of the season how strong teams actually are because we can't be sure which games were fixed and which ones were played clean. The absence of Juventus in Serie A, if they do get demoted, would leave a pretty big power vacuum in the league, adding a further wrinkle to handicapping. Finally, Juventus would so outclass the teams in Serie B that betting on that league would be a complete mess.
As an added twist, there is no way to accurately predict what kind of an impact this scandal will have on the fate of the Italians at the World Cup. The distractions and accusations could completely demoralize them and lead to an early exit, or it could galvanize the team and unite them to prove to the world that the whole team isn't full of cheaters.