The Azzurri’s message to Italy

Geoff Andrews
9 July 2006

Italy on the night of 9 July 2006 was a place to dissolve any doubts about the capacity of football to restore a sense of national pride. As Italians streamed onto the streets and piazzas under a crescendo of horns and whistles to celebrate Italy's victory over France in the football world-cup final in Berlin, the unrestrained outpourings of joy seemed to be accompanied by new hope that the moment might open the way to healing the divisions of a polarised society.

In Turin, where up to 40,000 people crammed into Piazza San Carlo to watch the match, the jubilation was particularly poignant. For this is the city of Juventus, the grand "old lady" of Italian football, which faces relegation, losing its best players and its sense of historical pride, after its former managing director, Luciano Moggi, was accused of arranging referees for matches who would give decisions in favour of the club. This calciopoli (soccer scandal) sees three other major Italian teams – AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina – facing similar charges.

It is a measure of Juventus's status within Italian football that seven of the players who started the final play for the club. They include Italy's two outstanding players of the tournament, Fabio Cannavaro and Gigi Buffon, while two of the match's substitutes (Alessandro Del Piero for Italy and David Trezeguet for France) had important roles in the penalty shoot-out. The player at the centre of Sunday's drama, Zinedine "Zizou" Zidane, had been signed by Moggi for an earlier spell at Juventus. Moreover, Italy's manager Marcello Lippi is a former Juventus boss, and his football-agent son has been implicated in the scandal.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005). This will be published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, September 2006)

Also by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy:

"Days of hope, rage and tragedy: from the summit foothills" (August 2001)

"Bossi's – and Berlusconi's – last shout? " (August 2003)

"Bologna's lesson for London" (August 2005)

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (March 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (April 2006)

"Sicily’s other story" (May 2006)

The politics of football

The link between Italian politics and football made clear so emphatically by the extraordinary background to the Azzurri's progress in the world cup has long associations. Silvio Berlusconi, former prime minister and owner-president of AC Milan, is not the first politician to exploit the connection. The development of Italian football's governing bodies, its stadia, the evolution of Serie A into a national league and football as a mass sport took place during the fascist era under Benito Mussolini. The Azzurri's most triumphal period was during the dictatorship, in successive (1934 and 1938) world-cup victories, which many attribute partly to Il Duce's own "tapping up" of referees during pre-match hospitality sessions.

But it is no longer sufficent to say that football is a metaphor for Italian politics. What recent weeks have demonstrated – on the pitch and in court, on TV sets, in Italian bars and piazzas (and in international newspapers) is something more profound. Calciopoli has immediate and significant implications for Italy's public life, political direction and sense of national identity.

The resonances of the current scandal with the condition state of Italy's civic life, past and present, are evident. There are echoes here of 1982, the year of Italy's last world-cup success. Then too, the team faced match-fixing allegations and much press criticism after a slow start, but adversity seemed to bring unity and inspiration.

There are further parallels with the Tangentopoli ("bribesville") scandal during the last, decayed period of Christian Democrat rule in the early 1990s. What has been uncovered at Juventus and elsewhere – whose repercussions go far beyond a few warped refereeing decisions – reflects what became clear then: a systemic and enduring problem of corruption, given legitimacy by "institutionalised" practices and sustained by its own complex network of clientelismo.

Indeed, as the calciopoli trial got underway and the first charges were announced (incredibly, on the same day as Italy took the field in their semi-final with Germany), the sense of déjà vu was overwhelming. Even the leading prosecutors are the same as for Tangentopoli – notably Francesco Saverio Borrelli who was instrumental in the conviction of Bettino Craxi, Italy's former prime minister and close Berlusconi ally.

Despite his ejection from power by the voters, the figure of Silvio Berlusconi remains pivotal. With the threat of relegation to Serie B hanging over his club, the "outraged" and "indignant" magnate once again condemned the "political motives" of the magistrates, claiming that his club was the "victim" of "refereeing favours" (just as in the general election on 9-10 April 2006, his Forza Italia party had been the victim of "voting irregularities"). As if that wasn't enough, two days before the world-cup final, the trial date was announced for a legal case involving money-laundering and tax-evasion at his Mediaset company.

Italy faces the future

Italy's victory on the field had a touch of nobility. The country's footballers are always under pressure; they eagerly scrutinise the pagelle (match grades) awarded to them by journalists after every game. Add the fact that Gianluca Pessotto, long-standing former team-mate of many of the players, attempted suicide out of apparent dismay at the events at his beloved Juventus, and the situation could easily have been beyond them.

Nor have the players sought to defend the officials under investigation. Gennaro Gattuso and others have rejected calls for an amnesty – the latest call coming in a typically populist intervention from a Forza Italia MP as a reward for winning the final.

Before the semi-final with Germany, several German newspapers launched an attack on the Italian team: an article in Der Spiegel calling the Italians "slimy parasites" had to be withdrawn, and Bild called on its readers to order a pizza at kick-off time to distract Italian supporters (before the final itself, Die Zeit compared the Italian team to the mafia). Yet the match with the host nation was played in the best spirits, another example of the power of football to resist national chauvinism.

The success of the Azzurri could have wide implications in Italy. The principal challenge is that Italian politics, like Italian football, will have to free itself from the "culture of illegality" which characterised the Berlusconi years. The general election showed how divided Italy is, and Romano Prodi's first priority as prime minister is to try to rebuild national unity.

The victory of the "no" vote in the devolution referendum of 25-26 June 2006, legislation initially proposed by Umberto Bossi's Lega Nord (Northern League), was achieved through invoking some of the core democratic principles of the Italian constitution, openly undermined during the Berlusconi years.

The presence at the final of Giorgio Napolitano, president of the republic, evoked one of his predecessors, Sandro Pertini at the 1982 final: Napolitano's post-match comment that the victory can "help national unity" marked a statesmanlike departure from the populist years.

For Silvio Berlusconi, the sight of Prodi singing O Sole Mio with the Italian players after the semi-final victory will be particularly galling. For the man who launched his political career in 1994 with the announcement that he was "taking the field" as the midfield was left "desolately empty", this could prove to be minuti di ricupero (added-on time).

But if it is indeed the beginning of the end for Berlusconi's political career, we can be sure that he will contest every refereeing decision along the way. As for the midfield, the artistry of Andrea Pirlo and the guts of Gennaro Gattuso can be a model for the enormous task that now faces Romano Prodi's team.

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