Tim Parks: Everyone, even the sainted Collina, knew games were fixed. Yet no one said a word

People know that the official version is the merest rhetoric

Every other week I sit with a group of friends on the terraces of the Bentegodi stadium to watch Hellas Verona play. Before the game we are reminded of a list of prohibitions. We must not throw objects on to the pitch. Any racist or territorial insults will be punished with a stadium ban. And we have been. This year two games have been played in an empty stadium. More vaguely, we are instructed to support our team with a "loyal, sporting spirit".

Obviously it is easier to describe bad behaviour than good. Nobody pays any attention. Nobody believes our fans were banned merely because of the racist chanting, since the same chants in other stadiums - the San Siro, the Olimpico - have not led to similar bans.

The referee starts the game. Seen from the terraces, he is a man of considerable authority, with a wonderful repertoire of commanding gestures. He is there to make the game fair, to stop it from turning into a war. His word and whistle are final. When our captain protests about a late penalty given against us, a long black arm raises a red card. Off! When there is a hint of monkey grunting from the curva, he makes a note in his little book.

To reassure us that the referee is unbiased we are always told which town he comes from, somewhere far away from either of the two teams on the pitch. So if you are worrying why all the yellow cards are being given against your team, you know it must be pure paranoia. And surely, you say to yourself, no one could influence or intimidate a man whose whole manner radiates authority.

Wrong. We now know for sure that the opposite is the case. The referee returns to the changing rooms and is shouted at by one club director or another. The referee receives threatening phone calls. The referee knows he has been chosen to referee a game because a certain result is desired. Or, if the situation isn't entirely clear, he asks himself which result would be most desirable for those who have the power to give him work. If he makes a mistake at the expense of the team that should win, there will be angry words, insults; if he makes a mistake at the expense of the team that should lose, there will be smiles and congratulations. What he is interested in, it seems, is not the fairness of the game, but the approval of his "superiors". Imperious gestures on the pitch are perhaps a small compensation for impotence off it.

What is truly revealing about the current scandal in Italian football is not the behaviour of Luciano Moggi, the director at Juventus who was more or less controlling who would referee which game and how. There will always be a bully ready to bend others to his interests. No, what is extraordinary is that not a single referee has spoken out against this.

These men, who love to make a theatre of peremptory and unbiased authority, were unwilling to say even a word about the kind of conditioning they or their colleagues were subjected to. For years. Doubtless they all knew, Pierluigi Collina included. Doubtless Collina (pictured) was aware that celebrity status had given him a freedom not enjoyed by his colleagues. But he did not imagine he could use his special position to change the overall situation.

What is so desolating of course is that we know that this pusillanimous behaviour is not restricted to football, but absolutely endemic to every area of Italian public life. Routinely situations develop where everybody senses or perhaps even knows that the official version of events is the merest rhetoric, that the rules are regularly ignored. Nobody speaks out because nobody believes that doing so will alter the situation. Rather, they fear they themselves will be punished.

This state of mind explains the distinctive pattern of Italian scandals. A situation of almost evident corruption is allowed to continue for years. It was quite evident to anybody who followed football carefully that there was something very wrong with the refereeing. Nothing was said. Certainly the sports journalists understood, but they said nothing - no doubt they feared for their own positions.

Perhaps a foreigner speaks out. The coach Zdenek Zeman speaks out. He is admired in public and sniggered at in private. He has ruined his career. The police collect evidence. Since no one will speak to them honestly, they are obliged to spend interminable hours finding out who is using what phone and listening to conversations, many of which must be of no relevance at all.

Many have complained about the way the scandal then broke, like all Italian scandals, with a sudden, massive and, for those involved, devastating release of information to the press. Sergio Romano complained bitterly about this form of media justice in an article on the front page of Corriere della Sera. But it is clear that only by destroying the enchantment, as it were, of corrupt power through the press can the police hope to get honest testimony from people. Who would go and tell any authority what they know about a man such as Moggi unless they see that he has been absolutely discredited and destroyed? But so long as nobody believes that their individual testimony can prevail against people with power, it is the only effective way to conduct inquiries.

Moggi claims he did what he did in order not to become the victim of others exercising a similar power. It is a credible explanation in a country where people do not believe that power is ever exercised in a disinterested fashion. They acknowledge a radical split between a public rhetoric that speaks of the "loyal sporting spirit" and a reality in which people always exercise all the power they have in order to get what they want. Indeed, Moggi's defence could be traced back as far as the 15th-century statesman Lorenzo il Magnifico's famous remark that in Florence "things go badly for a rich man if he doesn't run the state".

What is at once so exhilarating and so distressing about Italy is the way, at the level of collective psychology, nothing ever changes. I will continue to watch Hellas Verona.

Tim Parks's latest novel, 'Cleaver', is set in South Tyrol