Berlusconi says 'revolution' in store if football clubs fail

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The Independent Online

Top football clubs stumbling into bankruptcy, stadiums erupting in bloody violence and a countrywide insurrection by fans bent on revenge against the government that allowed their sport to hit the rocks.

Top football clubs stumbling into bankruptcy, stadiums erupting in bloody violence and a countrywide insurrection by fans bent on revenge against the government that allowed their sport to hit the rocks.

The doomsday scenarios that might unfold if Italian football collapsed came a step closer to reality yesterday when Silvio Berlusconi's government announced it was shelving plans to bail out clubs swimming in debt and unpaid taxes.

Mayhem broke out at last Sunday's Roma-Lazio derby in Rome. Fans fought police and setthe stands alight, and the game was abandoned after rumours spread that a child had been killed by a police car outside the ground. The chaos came a day after Mr Berlusconi predicted that a "revolution" would break out on the terraces if his government did not save the clubs.

The violence in Rome is being seen as an orchestrated "strategy of tension" which was designed to force the government to pass a new "Save Football" decree, allowing stricken clubs to spread their payment of back taxes over several years.

But with the coalition and his Finance Minister and close ally Giulio Tremonti strongly opposed to the plan, Mr Berlusconi relented yesterday. After a cabinet meeting, the Welfare Minister, Roberto Maroni of the Northern League, said: "The only thing that the League is prepared to spread out is Nutella, not debts. The decree has been shelved, definitively I hope."

Practically all of the top clubs are in trouble, and they have a deadline at the end of March to get their books straight to satisfy new Uefa accounting rules.

The cabinet's decision followed the arrival of a fax from European Union competition commissioner, Mario Monti, provisionally rejecting the proposed measure as "state aid" to Italian clubs which would distort competition between clubs of different countries.

The financial problems of Italian football are hard to exaggerate. Last season the clubs of Serie A reported a combined operating loss of €948m (£637m). Eighty-five per cent of their revenue went on players' salaries. Roma and Lazio, currently placed second and fourth in Serie A respectively, and with several of Italy's most expensive players on their books, have total debts of about €200m. The Lazio president, Sergio Cragnotti, founder of crippled canned food giant Cirio, is still in custody after his arrest more than a month ago.

As president of AC Milan, Italy's top club, Mr Berlusconi is acutely aware of how strongly tens of millions of Italians feel about football. But his coalition partners fret that voters would be equally angered to see the government bailing out some of the highest earners in the country. "If the idea is to reward people who are earning millions per minute, it's unsustainable," said Mr Maroni. "With one month of [a footballer's] stipend I could work as minister for five years."

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