Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Italian Job

European Cup, League Cup, Premiership, blah blah blah... There's only one story that really deserves your attention this evening, and it's not Niall Quinn's remarkably candid confession that maybe now was not the right time for him to take on his first managerial role. The story comes from Italy, where the Italian Match-Fixing Story, a tale of intrigue that simply keeps on giving, is moving into a phase which may have ramifications for the world game.

For those of you that have been living under a rock since May, a quick re-cap. Juventus, Milan, Lazio & Fiorentina were all found guilty, to varying degrees, of referee-fixing. Juventus, the most deeply involved of the four, were relegated to Serie B and deducted thirty points for this season. Lazio and Fiorentina were relegated but only deducted seven points, and Milan stayed up, but were deducted fifteen points and barred from the European Cup. On appeal, the sentences were commuted somewhat - Milan are back in the European Cup, Lazio & Fiorentina are back in Serie A, and Juventus had their points reduction reduced from thirty to fifteen. Most observers (myself included) felt that the initial punishment was fair, and grumbled at the results of the appeal, but fair enough. Decision made. Now, however, a second appeal by Juventus has failed, and all hell is threatening to break loose.

Having been told that their appeal was unsuccessful, Juve's lawyers have been muttering darkly about taking the matter to civil court, or to the European Court of Human Rights. As some of you may know, this is strictly forbidden under FIFA and UEFA rules, and FIFA have now sent a strongly-worded letter to the Italian Football Association the FIGC), stating that sanctions will be brought against all of Italian football if the FIGC don't get their house in order and prevent this from happening. This could, theoretically, result in all Italian teams being banned from national and international competition, up to and including Italy being barred from Euro 2008.

You have to, in a way, doff your cap to Juventus for their sheer brass neck. There's no question over their guilt. They were caught red-handed. Their complaint appears to be that they have been dealt with unfairly compared to the other teams involved, which overlooks the somewhat inconvenient fact that they were much more deeply implicated than anyone else. Unlike in the UK, though, the big three clubs in Italy (Juventus, Milan & Internazionale) are supported by an estimated 70% of the population. They're massive. Juventus alone have over 1,000 supporters' clubs outside of Turin. They wield power that the likes of Manchester United would kill for. This is an important factor in understanding why they're not just accepting their punishment (even though they said that they would abide by it to start with). Also at the forefront here is the Italian characteristic of "victimhood", and what borders on a persecution complex. Quite asides from this, there are practical reasons for Juve's volte-face. They assumed that they would remain comfortably off from the sale of players and TV money from Sky Italia, but the players haven't sold for the prices that they anticipated getting for them, and Sky have been clawing back money from Juve, as they're no longer a Serie A club. The question is this: which will win through at the Stadio Delle Alpi, sporting principles or big money?

FIFA are justifiably nervous about Juve's threats to go to court, and this is why they are forcing the FIGC's hand. In previous court battles, the European Courts have not exactly been sympathetic to the idiosyncratic legal structure of football (for example, consider the Bosman case, or their decision to force the FA to unbundle live Premier League television rights), and the G14 (the organisation supporting the self-elected "big" clubs) are also waiting in the wings. They are currently sponsoring a Belgian club, Royal Charleroi, who are sueing FIFA over an injury to one of their players in an international match (you can read the ins and outs over that tawdry tale here). They want a slice of FIFA's golden goose, the World Cup, and any case won by a club against FIFA strengthens their hand.

The potential (and I use the word with some trepidation, as it seems highly unlikely) damage could be massive. Once a few big clubs win a legal case against FIFA through a court, the floodgates may open. The clubs will utterly control when players play internationally (will African FAs risk bankrupting themselves by picking, say, Chelsea players? Hell, no), and the clubs themselves will decide when they've done something wrong. Which is rather like what Juventus are trying on now, I guess. I don't think it'll go that far, and I don't think it will because Juventus have already had their sentence reduced, and because there is no question or debate over their guilt. Their reputation is in the mud, and they seem intent on dragging down as far as they can realistically get away with, but the risk to them should they lose any court case (and, certainly in Italy, there is still scant little sympathy for them) could result in a complete meltdown. Having said that, it appears to me to be only a matter of time before one of the big clubs decides to chance their arm against the authorities in a civil court, and all of us will be a little poorer as a result.


colin said...

I have to say, I've always thought it verged upon the obscene the way Uefa and Fifa wave around the threat of expulsion to try and stop anyone challenging them in court.

I remember when John Collins left Celtic and signed for Monaco, who refused to pay a fee - citing the Bosman ruling, despite not actually being in the EU or covered by its laws at that time.

When Celtic complained to Uefa, they got no support and - when they suggested they might like a judge to rule on that decision - Uefa said they would be banned from European football if they raised a case and the SFA would be instructed to suspend them from domestic football or itself face expulsion from Uefa and Fifa.

I can't think of any other organisation that gets away with that kind of crude bullying tactics.

And it's back again in the Italian case.

If you review the evidence, most of it is against one individual who was not always employed by the clubs punished - although they certainly benefited from his actions.

Others who there is direct evidence against are named employees of the domestic association and the Uefa and Fifa administrations and referee lists.

None of these people face any sanctions whatsoever.

If a club challenges that outcome - they are hit with the threat of expulsion by Fifa.

Now, I don't have much sympathy with Juve over their punishment - other than in that the clubs seem to be suffering where the autorities have escaped - but I can see exactly why they fancy their day in court.

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