The Loss of Trust in Italian Football

Che scandalo!Now, as it so happens I was never a small boy who played football. I fail on both counts, in fact, since the closest I’ve come to playing football is a kickabout in the back garden with my little brothers (Vanda’s exclusive top tip for footballing glory: don’t wear high heels. Here endeth the lesson).

However I am willing to hazard a few guesses about the conclusions to which small boys playing football usually come when they lose a match. And my gut feeling would be that by and large they don’t include paranoid conspiracy theories. We are constantly being told, here in Italy at least, that children are the soul of football, its last hope, its glorious future, the true keepers of proper sporting values, the enemies of cynicism, cheating and corruption.

Well, let’s take a look at that.

Describe a game of football between your class’ football team and another class’ team…

Ciruzzo’s shot went out and not in, but the referee was under the influence of the teacher, so the teacher won the cup. Us, our class, we should have won, but instead it was Professore Esposito’s class what won, because he gives him Christmas presents and my teacher who is poor doesn’t give him any. But it’s not right.

Then Professore Esposito when he had won the other games against the other classes was acting like the cock on the rubbish*, but if we’d been there there’d not have been any rubbish.

If Capretto hadn’t pissed that ball away we would have won the cup in the end but the referee made Professore Esposito’s team win if not he wouldn’t give him any presents any more.

But it’s not right. Now I don’t know whose tyres to let down, the ref or Professore Esposito.

* Traditional Neapolitan expression for bragging, acting the big-shot over weaker opponents
(From “Io speriamo che me la cavo”, ed. Marcello D’Orta, 1991)

This is a genuine primary school essay from a kid in a suburb of Naples, taken from a book I’ve been discussing over on my own blog. As well as being terribly funny – my translation does no justice to the beauties of the original – this story is really rather alarming, on several counts.

Is the idea of bribing referees really so deep-seated in Italian football? And regardless of the accuracy or otherwise of the allegations against Professore Esposito, is it axiomatic that when your team loses, it must be the ref’s fault? I would also draw your attention to the inherent threat of violence against referees and opposing managers with which our narrator concludes. Best slap a banning order on that lad pronto.

More seriously, this reminded me of some of the reactions to the calciopoli scandal. While outside Italy some expressed surprise at the idea of leaning on referees to influence matches, here the only surprise was that something was being done about it. In Italy it’s not cynical to think biased refereeing goes on; it’s hopelessly naïve to think that it doesn’t. If even small boys playing in primary school tournaments take for granted that teachers are bribing the ref, how can we doubt that it goes on in Serie A where, after all, the stakes may be higher? (though the chance of having your tyres let down is probably the same). After all, at Christmas in 1999 a number of leading referees were given brand new Rolexes by owner Franco Sensi (Roma’s very own Professore Esposito, it would seem).

Here on a daily basis we accuse one another of cheating and corruption. Rarely of outright bribery, nothing so crude; but of intimidating the ref with status and power (see the furore over the penalty Inter was given against Parma last month) or of improperly using financial clout and big-club status (see Palermo president Zamparini’s lunatic diatribe against Roma’s ball-boy last week). Being “furbo” – sly, cunning – is a positive attribute, a vital element of the winning mentality. It’s part of the normal, even essential, daily discourse of Italian football. And perhaps things have changed since 1990, but if not, these attitudes permeate all levels of footballing culture, right down to primary schools.

Italians are notoriously bad losers, often redefining gracelessness in their petulant refusal to accept defeat. But that makes perfect sense if you think that everything is most likely a fix. This mentality especially applies to the national side. When the Azzurri lose, it’s everyone’s fault but the team’s. Is this paranoia, though, or the cynicism born of experience? Domestically, everyone “knows” that’s how the “system” works. At an international level, some supporters in other countries naively think that matches are determined solely on the pitch, and fail to take seriously Italian conspiracy theories.

The true problem is that such paranoia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if everyone else is doing it, then you better join in, or you really will miss out. Far worse than the reality of corruption in Italy – and it is present – is the perception of its ubiquity. Italian football is a system from which trust has been eroded completely.

Photo credit: mirkocorli

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