Corruption scandal cast aside as Italian heroes return home

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The Independent Football

Fêted by fly-pasts and greeted as conquering heroes, Italy's World Cup winners got a truly Roman homecoming yesterday. Amid the fireworks and the cheers there was only the quietest note of tension over the verdict, expected later this week, of a match-fixing trial that could see half of the winning squad demoted to the lower divisions.

The plane carrying the Azzurri back from Germany landed at Pratica di Mare, a military airport on the coast just south of the capital. The pilot hung an Italian flag out of the cockpit window as the plane came to a halt and team captain Fabio Cannavaro held up the gold trophy as he and Marcello Lippi, the coach, emerged to cheers from thousands of waiting fans.

"I don't know if we are in seventh heaven or sixth heaven but we are pretty high up there," Lippi told Italian television.

The players and the World Cup trophy were whisked to Palazzo Chigi, the Prime Minister's office, after which the team made the by-now obligatory open-top bus tour of the city centre before meeting delirious fans at the Circus Maximus, the ancient Roman charioteering ground. A carnival atmosphere prevailed for most of yesterday as the vast Piazza Venezia and the Via del Corso were closed to traffic last night to give the players' buses space to move.

But the dark clouds remain as prosecutors seek relegation for the domestic champions Juventus to Serie C ­ the third division ­ or lower; and for Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio to be relegated to Serie B. It is also seeking to strip Juventus, the club at the centre of the scandal, of the league titles it won in the past two seasons. But some believe the inquiry that is ripping apart the national sport back home helped inspire the players in Germany. "Beautiful and imperfect. Heroic and fearful: we are football," read a commentary in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

"If the scandal hadn't happened I don't think we would have won the World Cup," Italy's midfielder Gennaro Gattuso said. "It has given us more strength."

In Milan, doctors said they had informed Gianluca Pessotto, the Juventus club official who had tried to kill himself by jumping out of a high window rather than face a match-rigging scandal investigation, of Italy's victory over France. Thirteen of Italy's squad belong to clubs facing potential relegation. Mr Pessotto smiled in his hospital bed on receiving the news and made the "V" victory sign, one doctor said.

"Italy of champions," was the banner headline across Corriere della Sera. "It's all true! World champions" said the headline on the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport.

The Italy captain, Fabio Cannavaro, said the team had celebrated into the early hours yesterday and that he had gone to bed at 7am together with the World Cup and his seven-year-old son, Cristian. "When he woke up and saw the Cup he gave me a look that spoke volumes."

The Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, visited the players in the dressing room after the final and was playfully splashed by showering gladiators, Cannavaro added. "He was almost dancing with us." The President conferred Italy's Order of Merit on the team.

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