Italy's spirits are lifted above the whiff of scandal

Buffon saves the day as he refuses to be cowed by the Juventus cloud
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The Independent Online

Italy's official guide to the World Cup opens with a saluto, a message, from Guido Rossi. The grey-haired bespectacled gent is no relation to Paolo but, like the former striker, suspended in the early 1980s, his name will forever be synonymous with corruption and football.

Guido is the extraordinary commissioner of the Italian Football Federation, the man charged with handling the match-fixing scandal that has enveloped Serie A. In his address he writes: "The current crisis in Italian football, which I have been called in to deal with, does not involve the Italy football team or its staff."

If that bald statement was meant as reassurance, it hasn't worked. Italy marched into this World Cup on a run of 18 unbeaten matches, including the scalps of Germany and Holland in high-profile friendlies, and with what their coach, Marcello Lippi, justifiably called "a solid, close-knit squad". And that is not always the case for a group of players whose ability is only rivalled by their egos.

But the Piedi Puliti (Clean Feet) inquiry has bit hard. Players have been scouring the pages of Gazzetta dello Sport at the team hotel as each leak has been published. The five who play for Juventus went into Thursday's final Group E game against the Czech Republic knowing that their club, the champions, face almost certain demotion, possibly by two divisions to Serie C. Another eight, who are spread across Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, knew their employers, too, were likely to be in the frame.

There was also a certain irony in the timing of Italy's first goal in Hamburg: Marco Materazzi's towering header from Francesco Totti's corner. It came at 4.26pm precisely, just four minutes before the Italian stock exchange closed and the list of who was to be charged was released. That goal was a mighty relief. And there was further good news when the announcement was eventually made. No player was among the 26 individuals facing prosecution.

"I've been asked a lot whether the team have been distracted by things happening at home in Italy at the moment, but that's not the case," Lippi maintained after the game, which set up tomorrow's last-16 tie against Australia.

"The only pressure the players feel comes from the big-match nerves. They know this is a unique oppor-tunity to achieve something, and they'll give their all to do it."

That may be so, and the fact that none of his squad has been singled out undoubtedly helps. The Italian Football Association have issued statements praising the players' professionalism. They did, after all, win a tough group.

But the tribunal into the allegations will begin its work proper on 29 June in Rome. That is the day before the quarter-finals, when Italy hope to be back in Hamburg.

On Friday, at the MSV Duisburg training centre, where the Italians are based, their goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was adamant that neither he nor his colleagues will be distracted. "We know that something is happening but of course we have to wait for the sentences. It's a waste of time talking about it now," he said.

Buffon plays for Juventus. He also performed very well against the Czechs, making eight first-class saves to deny, in particular, his club team-mate Pavel Nedved. "It [the scandal] has not left any mark on us. There is nothing official, no sentence and every one of us is thinking exclusively about the World Cup," Buffon, who stood accused of illegal betting, added. "The World Cup is the summit for any player and only comes along every four years. You don't want to let it be ruined by other things."

The "other things" have also included the usual bout of Italian self-doubt. After their early exit in the last World Cup, bitterly decrying the injustices of defeat by South Korea, and at Euro 2004, they needed to progress this time. Anything less was unthinkable. But the hard-fought victory over Ghana was followed by an even more bruising, if less profitable, draw with the United States. The doubts returned.

"We suffered a crisis in the game against the USA but it is forgotten," Totti felt able to say after the victory over the Czechs. "From now on it is going to be very difficult for us. Every game can be decided by a simple mistake. As for myself, I would like to score a goal in order to gain more confidence." Totti is, of course, slowly playing himself back into form after three months out with a fractured ankle. His country need him to fire if they are to gather momentum.

But they also need to continue to pull together. The full-back Fabio Grosso, who plays for Palermo, not one of the clubs affected, said: "The most important thing is that we look more and more like a team and not just football players playing together. Now we have to do better and better."

The inquiry could, curiously, eventually help. After all, back in 1982, when Rossi - Paolo, not Guido - returned from his ban and the stench of corruption still lingered around the Italian game, the Azzurri started more sluggishly than now. They then went on to win the World Cup. It was Rossi, who ended as top scorer, who resurrected them.