Every stereotype has been overturned during Italy's glorious run to the World Cup final in Germany. Famed for defensive football, the team has gone on the attack. The squad, united as rarely before, has shown little sign of diving, or violence. Which team has been fouled the most? Italy.
Last week millions of Italians poured on to the streets to celebrate the semi-final triumph. Hero-worship has been heaped upon the team and its manager, Marcello Lippi. After five years of institutionalised illegality and international shame, a new, post-Berlusconi Italy is emerging through football .
Meanwhile, back in Rome, an older Italy has been on trial. Four top clubs (Juventus, Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina) face relegation next week following charges of match fixing and sporting fraud. Criminal investigations in Rome, Naples, Milan, Turin, Parma and Perugia have pointed to a network of corruption and false accounting. Cheating appears to have been a way of life.
Of course, these two worlds are in no way related. Nothing should be made of the fact that eight footballers due to appear in the final play for Juventus, the club at the heart of the scandal. Nor should any conclusions be drawn from Lippi's career - he spent seven years at Juventus in the 1990s (winning five championships). Zinedine Zidane, France's captain, was a key part of that team. Moreover, Lippi's son, Davide, is being investigated by magistrates in Rome for his activities with the GEA World, the football agents' organisation. Finally, no inferences should be drawn from the doping trials which shocked Italy, and occurred during the Lippi era with Juventus. At the moment, the doping case is awaiting a final decision by the Italian high court.
If Italian football was a corrupt system, who was in on it? A lot of people, it seems, including referees, journalists, tax police and TV presenters. Yet the players, from what we can gather, had no suspicions. Lion-hearted Fabio Cannavaro - team captain and national hero - held a special press conference in the run-up to the tournament after he appeared to defend some of the people at the centre of the scandal. So did the players know what was going on and fail to denounce anything to the authorities, which is a crime in Italy?
Some say that a victory tonight would inevitably be tainted, but there are many who want the festa to obscure the dark side of the game. The most senior advocate of an amnesty for the wrongdoers is none other than Clemente Mastella, Italy's Minister for Justice, who says the government won't interfere although the fans seem to be asking for it. Mastella is a friend of two of the alleged ringleaders, and his son is a football agent.
Whatever the result, tonight will see the biggest transfer market of the century open in earnest. Every Juventus player (and possibly those from the other clubs, as well) will be up for grabs - except for club icon Alessandro Del Piero, who has promised to stay with Juve. One key figure - Fabio Capello - has already jumped ship, and may use the sale to recruit some of his former players for Real Madrid. Italy may win and the party go on for days, but the crisis is deep and structural.
Italian football - and Italian society - are at a point of no return. In the past, the well-worn tactics of cover-up, delay and confusion have been employed in the face of scandal. This time, win or lose, there has to be a new beginning.
John Foot's 'Calcio: A History of Italian Football' is published by Fourth EstateReuse content