World Cup Countdown: Corruption probe raises the heat on Italian coach

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The Independent Online

Italy's preparations for next month's World Cup are in turmoil as the investigation into systematic corruption in Italian football - arguably the biggest scandal in the history of the game - widens and deepens.

On Friday, the national team coach, Marcello Lippi, was questioned for over three hours by magistrates in Rome about his relationship with Luciano Moggi, the former director-general of Juventus, who is accused of being the architect of an extraordinary network of powerbrokers - from referees and football federation officials to senior police officers - that ran calcio for years in the interests of Juventus and of the player agency GEA. Lippi's son, Davide, works for the agency, which is run by Moggi's son, Alessandro.

The players selected by Lippi to represent the country in Germany will turn up today at Coverciano, the Football Federation's technical centre in Florence, for the first pre-tournament training session with the 58-year-old coach. But they cannot be sure that he will still be in charge for Italy's opening Group E match against Ghana on 12 June.

Lippi, who coached Juventus from 1994 to 1998 and 2001 to 2004, is not under investigation - he was interviewed as a "person informed of the facts" - yet calls for his head are intensifying because of his links with Moggi and GEA. Two national newspapers, Il Riformista and Il Manifesto, have called for him to step down. Antonio Gentile, a senator from the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, said that Lippi "cannot remain at the helm of the national team - his image has been compromised".

Critics argue that telephone taps published last week demonstrate that his Italy team became an extension of Moggi's power base. In several conversations Moggi asks Lippi to leave out Juventus players - Fabio Cannavaro because he was tired, Alessandro Del Piero because of a club trip to the Far East - and Lippi's team-sheets suggest there could have been some compliance.

Senior figures within the game have defended Lippi. Renzo Ulivieri, head of the Italian coaches' association, said all national team coaches came under the same kind of lobbying to include or leave out certain players. The England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, who has to juggle the needs of the country with those of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, might well sympathise with Lippi on this issue.

A second, more damaging, accusation is that Lippi favoured GEA players when picking his team. The benefits to an agency of having a player called up for Italy are clear. According to some reports, Davide Lippi told the Juventus player Manuele Blasi that he would secure a regular place in the national side if he dropped his agent, Stefano Antonelli, and joined GEA, allegedly telling Blasi that Lippi Snr had a "soft spot for GEA players".

Lippi denies that he came under pressure from Moggi and says that the selection of players for Italy has always been transparent. He denies that he is represented by GEA, despite appearing on a list of GEA coaches compiled by magistrates. Statistics concerning the number of GEA players called up by Lippi in his two years in charge are inconclusive. Only three of the 23 players meeting today at Coverciano are with the agency.

Lippi is due to be questioned by magistrates again but this will probably not be until after the World Cup. After Friday's interrogation, Lippi said that anyone expecting him to resign "was making a big mistake".

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