Tim Parks: Swedes, Danes, Bulgarians, referees - they're all in on it

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The Italians, like the English, may be out of the competition that counts, but can they be beaten when it comes to constructing conspiracy theories? Since almost anything is more pleasant than a constant mental replay of England's penalty shoot-out, let's try.

The Italians, like the English, may be out of the competition that counts, but can they be beaten when it comes to constructing conspiracy theories? Since almost anything is more pleasant than a constant mental replay of England's penalty shoot-out, let's try.

Let's take the mind back to that intriguing evening when Sweden and Denmark arrive at the vital 2-2 draw that all the bookmakers had foreseen and, just a minute later, Italy at last bury the pathetic Bulgaria with a goal 30 seconds from the end of a surprisingly long injury time. The scenario, I assure you, could be far more complicated than a mere Scandinavian stitch-up...

But first a word on the conspiracy mentality. The Brits ingenuously imagine that this is just an unpleasant form of whingeing and buck-passing. You complain that Meier was a home-side referee or that the penalty spot was a bit dodgy, when in your heart of hearts you know that England lost because about half-way through the second half they stopped playing.

Brits are also childishly obsessed by the notion that something is either true or it is not true; the game was fixed or it wasn't. It is hard for such a dogmatic mind to relish conspiracy theories, as the Italians do. They like to feel slightly dazed by the multiplicity of solutions and the general dishonesty of everybody. It was clearly a great relief in Italy when news of that 2-2 draw came through and they could feel that the famously honest Danes and Swedes were, in fact, as corrupt as everyone else.

It's going to take an effort to beat the Italians in this department, but let's try. Let's float the idea that the Italy-Bulgaria game was even more cleverly fixed than the Scandinavian charade.

Back to the evening of 22 June. Two matches are being played simultaneously. Italy, apparently, are bound to beat Bulgaria. Only a 2-2 draw will allow both Scandinavian teams to go through, even with an Italian victory.

So how would you approach this situation if you were Italy? Convinced as the Italians are that the Scandinavians will be planning the stitch-up, what they must somehow do is convince the big blond boys that there's no need, that Italy really are so awful that they can't beat Bulgaria. That way Denmark and Sweden can concentrate on trying to beat each other and win the group.

The important thing, then, is for Italy to be losing at half-time. And so they are. We're not long into the game when Del Piero finds himself with an open goal; inexplicably he kicks wide. Likewise Cassano. Then in the 40th minute, sure enough Materazzi, alone in the box with Berbatov (the ball is somewhere else altogether), gives him a hug and allows him to fall over. Penalty. One-nil. What one has to understand here is the heroism of the Italian players: they are willing to appear truly awful in the hope that this will influence the Scandinavian game. The Danes go into the break one-nil up. Maybe they won't feel they have to let the Swedes catch up.

Yet almost immediately Italy equalise. This would seem to run contrary to our conspiracy theory, but for two considerations. First, Italy really are pretty bad and they don't want to arrive near the end with more than one goal to get. Second, this is one of the most bizarre goals you will ever see. Check it. Cassano is allowed to shoot from the edge of the box. He strikes the underside of the bar. The ball bounces down hard and soars up. The goalkeeper is standing beneath it, by his post, facing the corner flag. No one is challenging him. Does he catch it? No. Does he punch it out for a corner? No. He lifts a hand and taps the ball over his head behind him into the six-yard box where Perrotta is waiting to score.

Not even Calamity James has ever done anything quite like this. Perhaps we should ask Bruce Grobbelaar to explain. Wisely, the Italian commentators make no comment. At this point any serious conspiracy theorist would have to add this reflection: the Bulgarians are in on it! They are to be allowed to look plucky and determined in return for a last-minute defeat.

And, in fact, towards the end they do contrive not to put away a couple of good chances on the break (something Italian TV will soon be holding against the Danes, as if it were proof of conspiracy). As the game draws to a close, the Italians cross more and more often, and the Bulgarians seem less and less interested in jumping. As the 90th approaches, five minutes are added. Five! Why? Who's been injured? The ref is in on it too! He didn't give a penalty to Cassano at the 75th because it was too early.

So, Italy-Bulgaria will now end after the Scandinavian game, even though it started before. And the Danes are still winning 2-1. Time to score, don't you think? Oddo is allowed to get away on the right. He passes it to Cassano unmarked around the level of the penalty spot. He smashes the ball in while the goalkeeper stands and watches. Done it! Fooled them! But no. Only seconds before, the Swedes had equalised. They saw through it all. The Italians have offered one of their most lacklustre performances for nothing!

Do I believe this? Not really. But that's not the important thing about conspiracy theories. What matters is having thought it, feeling aggrieved, convincing yourself that the world is an ugly place, that you have been taken for a ride. Nothing is more galvanising than rancour.

And even if I know it's not true, a trace remains in the mind. This is a possible version of events, you think. A little mud clings. That is the scandal of all scandal-mongering. Anything to get over the unhappiness of losing. When we win, though, it's sport.

Tim Parks is author of 'An Italian Education' and 'A Season with Verona'

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