x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Euro 2012: Italy find themselves in unwelcome but familiar fix

Coach Cesare Prandelli can take solace from the fact Italy have won titles under the cloud of corruption twice before, writes Ian Hawkey.

Cesare Prandelli, centre, the Italy head coach, has had much on his plate as his team prepare for Euro 2012. Fabrizio Giovannozzi / AP Photo
Cesare Prandelli, centre, the Italy head coach, has had much on his plate as his team prepare for Euro 2012. Fabrizio Giovannozzi / AP Photo

There are some things that have gone right for Italy ahead of Euro 2012, but in the blizzard of problems, with a fresh one apparently surfacing each day, Cesare Prandelli, the Azzurri head coach, must struggle to remember what they were.

A mundane, apparently routine setback like the calf injury sustained by the defender Andrea Barzagli on Monday can almost seem a relief because it does not come associated with legal issues.

Except that even that soon did. Barzagli will apparently not be fit enough to play in any of Italy's Group C matches, which inevitably raised the question of whether a replacement should be called up instead.

Domenico Criscito, the Zenit Saint Petersburg left-back, has already volunteered, claiming: "Prandelli told me if they needed to call-up someone late, it would be me."

Criscito had been in the original party of 23, a genuine contender to make the starting XI against Spain on Sunday.

Then, last week, police arrived at Italy's training headquarters in Tuscany with a warrant to search through Criscito's belongings.

It was the latest and probably highest-profile episode in an on-going investigation into illegal betting and match-fixing in Italian domestic football. Criscito played for Genoa until last year.

At that point, Prandelli excluded Criscito, saying that while he supported the player utterly until such time as he was found guilty of any offence – Criscito protests his innocence – the pressure the investigation would have put him under would be too much to bear during the tournament.

The issue did go away with that. Mario Monti, the Italian prime minister, responded to the latest raids by talking of suspending professional football in Italy altogether "for two or three years" if that would help solve endemic corruption.

It has been widely reported that the Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci, who is the Azzurri squad, is to be questioned in connection with the scandal because he used to play for Bari, some of whose former players have been arrested; newspaper also claimed that magistrates are looking into heavy bets on sport placed by Gigi Buffon, the Italy goalkeeper.

Prandelli has not pretended the scandal casts no shadow. He seemed to be challenging Monti when he said his squad would withdraw from Euro 2012 if asked, creating some panic among his bosses at the federation.

Prandelli has also been at pains to point out the distinctions between the cases of Criscito, who is being investigated, Bonucci, who is not – as yet – and even Buffon, who may or may not simply gamble heavily.

This is by no means the first time a domestic corruption crisis has ushered Italy into an international tournament. Buffon will know that.

In 2006, ahead of the World Cup, prosecutors announced an investigation into links between Juventus directors and Italian referees, and the calciopoli scandal erupted.

Juve, who had five players in the Azzurri squad in Germany at the time, would be relegated as a result. During the crisis, Gianluca Pessotto, one of Buffon's long-time Juventus playing colleagues who was affected by the scandal, jumped from a fourth-storey window at the Juventus offices in an apparent suicide attempt.

He survived. The difference is that calciopoli did not implicate players in wrongdoing.

It did bind Italy's players, though, as Fabio Cannavaro, the captain of Italy's 2006 team and the former Al Ahli defender, points out: "In that sort of situation, everybody unites together. The group becomes more solid."

Italy promptly won that World Cup.

Their previous World Cup success, in 1982, also followed a match-fixing and betting scandal that directly implicated the striker Paolo Rossi, who would emerge as a hero of the campaign.

So could the current crisis actually turn out as an advantage?

Prandelli is tiring of the question. "I know Italy has had problems like this before and reacted by being successful," he said, "but also an atmosphere of calm can be helpful in preparation for a tournament."

So can a bit of form.

Italy lost last Friday night, 3-0, to Russia in a warm-up game, their third successive defeat in friendlies.

The outstanding record overseen in qualification by Prandelli – unbeaten, with only two goals conceded in 10 games – must indeed seem a long time ago.

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