Italian players arrested in match-fixing probe

The spectre of corruption returned to haunt Italian football yesterday when former star World Cup striker Beppe Signori was among 16 people arrested after investigators busted a football match-fixing operation that was so big police dubbed it a "proper criminal organisation".

In addition to Signori, who appeared in the 1994 World Cup final, police held other big-name players and club officials in towns across the country including Rome, Turin, Naples and Bologna. Magistrates claimed that players flunked matches for cash, while others were doped to ensure that they played badly.

The probe looks likely to rock Italian football just five years after the so-called Calciopoli scandal that led to Turin giants Juventus being relegated to the second division. In addition to the 16 arrested yesterday, another 12 people are officially under investigation in connection with the suspec-ted match-fixing scam.

Former Lazio and Bologna forward Signori, who retired in 2006, has been placed under house arrest. He is Serie A's eighth top scorer of all time with 188 goals. He was described as the "central element of a group of Bologna betters" involved in the scam, in an arrest warrant issued by Cremona investigating magistrate Guido Salvini.

In comments to the Ansa news agency, Signori said: "Have some mercy. I can't say anything. I will meet my lawyer and then he'll speak for me."

Atalanta's Cristiano Doni and former Sampdoria defender Stefano Bettarini, both of whom played international football for Italy, are also said to be under investigation.

Prosecutors said they had "important and irrefutable" evidence that the 16 were involved in manipulating results in 18 mostly Serie B (second division) and lower league matches in the season that has just come to an end, adding that Atalanta and Siena's promotion to the top flight may be in danger.

Police said the six-month investigation, triggered by a Serie B match in Cremona that aroused suspicion last year, had revealed the involvement of current footballers, club executives and sports betting operators. They said bets worth hundreds of thousands of euros had been placed on matches.

According to Mr Salvini, there was also a failed attempt to fix a Serie A match between Inter Milan and Lecce at the San Siro in March.

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