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A Soccer Scandal Made for Television

THROUGHOUT Italy’s ride to the World Cup finals, the team has produced moments of beauty, grit and creativity before a cumulative worldwide television audience estimated at 30 billion or more. But lurking ominously behind the Italian team’s exploits, and perhaps even driving a desire for redemption through victory, is the scandal that has engulfed Italian soccer for months. It’s a scandal born of two elements certain to be on display in today’s championship game: the competitor’s drive to win and the power of television to shape commerce and culture.

The scandal emerged from within the Italian leagues, where a handful of dominant teams are accused of trying to rig the national sport in order to ensure victory and, as a consequence, command a disproportionate share of television revenues. Indictments by prosecutors in Naples, based in part on thousands of wiretapped conversations, depict executives of the nation’s most successful teams bullying and bribing referees to guarantee victory in key matches.

In one alleged instance, Luciano Moggi, the former general director of Turin’s team, Juventus, punished uncooperative referees by confining them in a locker room. An executive of A.C. Milan, the team owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, apparently had no such trouble; he can be heard on tape brazenly calling another referee “our man.”

That Berlusconi’s name should appear prominently in this business is hardly happenstance. If Italian society and Italian soccer resemble each other, it’s in part because both have been dominated so thoroughly by him. The richest man in Italy, Berlusconi oversees a vast empire that includes the biggest publishing and movie production companies in the country and a virtual monopoly on commercial television.

When he took over A.C. Milan in 1986, he bought up the best players, then presented his new stars by landing them, via helicopter, in the Milan stadium, accompanied by the blaring strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie.” Other teams went into debt trying to compete with Berlusconi’s showmanship and deep pockets.

While Berlusconi pauperized opponents with one hand, however, he enriched them — or some of them — with the other. He began using his private television company, Mediaset, to bring big money into the game. In the past, Italian soccer had rarely been seen on TV. The state-owned television network, worried that fans might not fill stadiums if they were able to watch matches at home, generally showed only one match per week — and only the second half of that.

Berlusconi’s network changed everything, eventually televising several matches a week. Stadiums indeed became emptier. But through rising television revenues, soccer was transformed into one of Italy’s biggest businesses, worth about $6 billion a year. And Italian soccer teams now depend more on television revenue than teams in any other major European country. Television led to a winner-take-all economy. Indeed, a group of young Italian economists published a series of economic studies of Italian soccer on the Web site La Voce that more or less predicted the current disaster.

Because networks are almost exclusively interested in broadcasting the matches of big-city teams with national followings (like Turin, Milan and Rome), smaller teams (Como, Brescia and Parma) have received a much smaller piece of the pie. With less revenue from television, these smaller teams have less money available to compete for star players.

It probably didn’t help matters that the league chose as its president Adriano Galliani, the head of Berlusconi’s team. Not surprisingly, he negotiated a television contract with Berlusconi’s network that mainly rewarded A.C. Milan and the other wealthy teams. Even in the throes of scandal, Italian soccer has resisted mechanisms like revenue sharing and salary caps that help to maintain the health of American sports leagues.

Television not only provided incentive for corruption, but some of the venues, as well. Italy’s soccer mania is fed by a seemingly endless supply of TV talk shows that dissect and analyze each match, including the behavior of referees. Some of this commentary was allegedly for sale. The host of one of the most popular shows was recently forced to resign after wiretaps revealed him seemingly taking orders from Moggi, the former head of Juventus, on how to talk about a match.

In response to the scandal, there is talk of punishing four teams, including A.C. Milan, by demoting them to the minor leagues. Several important sports figures risk going to jail for their actions and 26 are under indictment. But whether any of this will lead to genuine change is far from certain.

The Italian national team’s marvelous World Cup play demonstrates that when players are freed from a corrupt system and allowed to compete fairly, the results can be truly exhilarating. Team Italy has had a beautiful run to the finals. Let’s hope that, regardless of who triumphs today, the Italian players don’t return home only to resume a tainted and ugly game.

– July 9, 2006

Published at The New York Times

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