The beautiful... and the damned

Once the envy of the world, Italian football is in crisis with falling crowds, widespread corruption and persistent racism. And now TV money threatens a civil war. James Lawton reports from Milan
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The Independent Football

In the exquisitely fashionable Galleria here yesterday, sipping an espresso and scanning the pages of La Gazzetta dello Sport, it was just possible to conjure a flash of nostalgia, a frisson of old beauty and passion. It was provoked by the front page headline, "Quanto sei bella Roma" - "How beautiful you are, Rome." After all, despite the old ruthless, defensive cynicism, beauty used to be a word inseparable from Italian football.

It was bello calcio all the time; beautiful skill, a perfect union between a people and a game, but now that reaction to Roma's Italian Cup victory over all-powerful Juventus in the cavernous, virtually empty Stadio delle Alpi on Thursday night is an oddity, a poignant harking back to an old belief that the Italian game has always retained the ability to heal itself.

Now you could travel the length and breadth of Italy in an unsuccessful pursuit of such a notion.

Michel Platini, the great star of Juventus in the Eighties, confided to a friend the other day: "I look at Italian football today and I do not recognise the game I played here. There are so many problems, you wonder if the game might really be dying in what used be one of its greatest centres." We know about the problems well enough now, the financial corruption, the match-fixing, the racism and, beyond everything, the greed, the sheer institutionalised greed.

Paolo Di Canio's fascist salutes are lightly punished and when a black player, Messina's Marco Andre Zoro, was recently abused by Internazionale fans, the players of both teams wanted the game stopped. But they were advised that they would breaking agreements made with the crowd. Genoa, the famous old club, operate in Serie C because they tried to bribe their way into the top flight in the crudest way, an official of Venezia caught leaving the office of the owner with a bag stuffed with banknotes, and Torino, also promoted, are in a lower division because their finances were in such disarray.

Melting down is the idea of a league which is only as strong as its weakest link. That was never at the forefront of Italian football thinking, of course, but now it is a marvel to find even a hint of lip service to such an idea.

What you cannot know until you come here is the scale of the disaffection with the old centrepiece of national life. You feel it everywhere; if calcio retains elements of beauty, if Roma indeed produced some wonderfully expressive football in a snowstorm, it is a terrible beauty, the kind you might encounter on the edge of a precipice.

Nearly a million fans have abandoned the game so far this season. Just over 5,000 huddled in the Stadio delle Alpi this week, and most of them, so it was said, were "Ultras" benefiting from discounted ticket prices.

There is indeed a rottenness at the heart of the Italian game. Christian Lezziero speaks eloquently of the despair of the intelligent fan. A supporter of Milan, he inherited his love of the club from his father. He has a satellite dish and every so often he drives up the autostrada from his home in Padua to see a game in San Siro. But he is doing it much less frequently than in the past. "The problem is that while I suppose I will always be a football fan - I will always love Milan - I do accept that Italian football has made my life ridiculous. Supporting a club like Milan, a club which tries to organise all of Italian football to suit its own needs, can only be an emotional thing. It just cannot be rationalised by an intelligent person." Certainly not this weekend when here in Milan there is, for the first time, hard talk of civil war between the charmed circle of Juventus, Milan and Internazionale, the second tier of Roma and Lazio, and the rest.

The threat from Fiorentina, a team who came close to oblivion but are now buoyed by the profits of the Italian fashion shoe company Tod's, is that they will make a mockery of Serie A if the cartel led by the Milan owner and Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, does not give significant ground in the hoarding of television money.

When the power behind Fiorentina, Diego Delle Valle, gathered 11 fellow chairmen around a dinner table here on Thursday, his most striking proposal was that games against the Big Three might be rendered farcical by the fielding of young reserve teams. "If Juve, Milan and Inter want to make a farce of Serie A, we can also play that game," he has said. "We can send out boys' teams. We can make a nonsense of Italian football." The indignation of Dalle Valle and his principal allies, Sampdoria and Palermo, is not so hard to understand.

Here is the current breakdown of television revenue projected over the next two and a half seasons after individual negotiations between Berlusconi's Mediaset and, now Rupert Murdoch's Sky Italia: Juventus, €110m, Milan €90m, Internazionale €80m, Roma €36-40m and Lazio €30m. The rest: €10m. It means that 70 per cent of television revenue passes to five clubs.

Near-empty stadiums for this week's Italian Cup quarter-finals - just 604 watched Sampdoria's game at Udinese - have struck one chord in the upper echelons of the league, provoking, it is said, Berlusconi's brusque order to the league president, Adriano Galliani, "Sort this out..."

If we worry about the distribution of power and wealth in the Premier League, here we have dramatic evidence that things could be a lot worse. Galliani is president of the Italian League. He also runs Milan for Berlusconi.

Grimly surveying the extent of dwindling supporters - Italian crowds were inferior to those in England, Spain, Germany and France with an average attendance in the Italian Cup of 4,483 - La Gazzetta dello Sport indulged in some bleak editorialising. The newspaper said: "In the US a basketball game is an event for all the family, in Italy everything is missing, from the parking spaces to the maxi-screens. The clubs mismanage communication, merchandising is almost non-existent and the scandals don't help bring the public closer."

Dominating everything is the sense of a game that has become a parody of the best of itself, that now it is more than anything a vehicle of profit for some of the most unscrupulous sections of Italian society. "Berlusconi," says the engineer Lezziero, "sneers at football and everybody in it, including the fans. It is just another way for him to make money. There is, in my belief, no feeling for the game."

Other allegations this season include the claim by Bayern Munich that the Italian player agency, Gea - which is run by the son of Luciano Moggi, the vice-president of Juventus - has developed such power it can shape even the composition of teams attempting to rival the Big Three.

Of all calcio's current humiliations few rival the law suit launched by the Italian prime minister's TV company against the state channel, RAI. It is a €45m action charging infringement of Mediaset's exclusive rights by the show Quelli che il Calcio. It is a ludicrous show. It employs actors to dress in football strips and reproduce goals being scored across the Italian league programme. It has high ratings, and, grimly, there is the theory that it is so popular because it makes a mockery of the league dominated by the team of the prime minister, Milan, Juventus and Internazionale.

Juventus' title win, with Patrick Vieira forming an excellent midfield partnership with the Brazilian Emerson, a classic marriage of power and touch that used to be commonplace in the Italian game, is considered a formality and under the sure touch of Fabio Capello there is the belief that the Champions' League is also within their grasp. But then what would it mean: an Italian team reigning in Europe, as Milan seemed so likely to do when they led Liverpool by three goals at half-time in Istanbul last spring? Many hard judges would see it as the last gasp of an old and ruined football culture.

Meanwhile, in Milan this weekend Diego Dalle Valle is fighting not just for money but for a hint of decency, of an understanding that if sport means anything it has to have an element of genuine competition. Christian Lezziero, and no doubt Michel Platini, wish him all the best, but with a downward shrug of resignation. The conclusion so hard to resist is that the terrible beauty of Italian football may have just been disfigured beyond repair.

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