Serie A could be in danger of exploding in scandal once again, and this time the damage could be even more lasting.
To recap, earlier this week Atalanta defender Andrea Masiello was arrested on charges of match-fixing while playing for A.S. Bari in 2011. While Masiello was the only once arrested, police are also investigating eight other players in connection with this scandal and have focused their attention on five different matches from last season. Of particular note to the authorities was Bari’s 2-0 loss to Lecce where Masiello had scored an own goal in the 80th minute that was rather dubious at the time. The year had been one of discord for Bari and they essentially had been doomed to relegation by the middle of the season, but Lecce was in a fight to stay up in Serie A so the 2-0 win was a huge boost to their fortunes. The investigators have recently expanded their look into other teams as well, including a Siena-Chievo match this season.
It is rather naive to be shocked by this incident, as anyone who follows Italian soccer knows the game has a documented history of suspect deals where relegation-doomed clubs help out their neighbors in the standings. In fact, Joe McGinniss wrote about just that in his popular book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, where the team he follows begins to behave suspiciously at the end of the season as soon as they are safe from relegation. It is also very naive to assume Italian soccer has always been totally above board; after all, it has only been six years since “Calciopoli” rocked Serie A and demoted the champions to Serie B. But this scandal is very different from rigging referees, and the reason why could seriously damage Italian football for the next decade or so.
But first, I want to detour for a train of thought about the team itself. Long-time readers know that I have an affinity for Bari due to my ethnic heritage and just recently I was given my first Bari jersey as a birthday present. I followed the team through a miserable season last year and despite U.S. TV never showing a second of Serie B footage, I have done my utmost to track this lovable band through their up-and-down season in the second division. Even though I knew Italian soccer had a dark side, and it could strike anywhere, this scandal was depressing to me. It was bad enough that ownership didn’t give a care about fielding a competitive last season and ran the club cut-rate, but this scandal pushed me over the edge. No one in the club cared for the fans, their reputation, their city, their heritage. While I will always chant “con il mare negli occhi e il sol nel cuore, Bari ti giuriamo eterno amore”, it will always now be with a lump in my throat.
What will be the immediate results of this scandal? Recent history is a guide. The “Calcioscommeese” scandal of last season in Serie B saw Italian international Cristiano Doni suspended for three and a half years, with numerous others also suspended. Atalanta was also docked six points at the beginning of this season, their first in Serie A, but have survived thus far to settle mid-table. The assumption currently is that this recent confession is a continuation of that scandal. The Doni incidents, however, took place in Serie B while the Masiello incident took place in Serie A. Depending on what matches were arranged, this could have had a huge impact on European spots and relegation, no small matter with the new Lega Calcio contract making playing in the Italian top-flight more lucrative. Depending on the outcome, expect Bari to be dropped a division and Lecce to also be sent to Serie B (although they are currently sitting in the Serie A relegation zone), as well as points docked and divisions dropped for other teams involved (including, it is rumored, Lazio).
There is, however, a more sinister element to this scandal and it is the possible influence of outside forces. Blame for the scandal and payments to Masiello are being placed on the Bari ultras, the local mafia, and even a Balkan gambling ring known as “The Gypsies”. It is one thing for the clubs to be conspiring among themselves to fix matches, but if there are outside forces that are influencing the outcome of Serie A results, this is a very serious matter. I suspect if it is found that gamblers have been influencing critical games, then UEFA will have to step in and try and police the Italian league. What will this mean for Champions League and Europa League spots? Who knows. But if the worst is realized and multiple games have been thrown due to gamblers, Serie A will be crippled like never before. Fans will have no faith in results, which inside Italy may not be a big deal but is a major deal for attracting non-Italian viewers to Serie A. UEFA will have to treat Italian teams with suspicion and could hurt their qualifications for lucrative tournaments. And the Serie A brand, which is slowly recovering from Calciopoli, would be set back for years.
For the sake of all Italian soccer fans, let’s hope this was a few knucklehead players trying to make a little extra dough and nothing more organized. Because the result could be catastrophic.