With the issue of match-fixing overshadowing their build-up to the tournament, and rumours flying around about two supposedly homosexual players in the ranks, Italy could be forgiven for feeling that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating at Euro 2012. The parallels are spooky, but the Azzurri will be only too delighted if their campaign in Poland and Ukraine ultimately conforms fully to that of the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
It was Karl Marx who famously wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” In Italy’s case the tragedy must be swapped for triumph – they won that World Cup – yet Domenico Criscito’s pre-tournament withdrawal and Antonio Cassano’s dubious performance in front of the media on Tuesday certainly lend credibility to the farce aspect of Marx’s conclusion.
Criscito was of course ruled out of contention for the finals on May 28 after Italian police conducted a dawn raid on his room at Italy’s training camp at Coverciano. The Zenit St Petersburg left-back was interviewed by police and told he is being investigated in the sprawling, expanding Calcioscommesse probe into alleged match-fixing which is once again undermining the reputation of Italian football.
Such was the gravity of the situation, coach Cesare Prandelli said before the start of Euro 2012 that “if you told us for the good of football we should not participate, it wouldn't be a problem for me.” But the history of Italian football suggests it may well be a good omen for the Italian national team.
In 2006, Italy won the World Cup under the cloud of Calciopoli – the scandal that sprung from wiretaps and resulted in the enforced relegation of the great Juventus – while in 1982 the ghost of the Totonero controversy – which saw over 30 players and officials accused of being complicit in match-fixing – was resurrected just before the tournament.
Italy’s darling, Paolo Rossi, had been suspended for three years for his role in the match-fixing scandal but his sentence was reduced to two, meaning he was able to return just in time for the finals in Spain. After being picked by coach Enzo Bearzot for the finals, an out-of-shape Rossi struggled through the group stage, only to then score three in a quarter-final win against Brazil, two in the semi-final against Poland and one in a 3-1 win over Germany in the final to win the Golden Boot.
Rossi’s exploits are of course legendary, his ability to pull himself from the lowest point of his career to the peak of the game in a matter of weeks one of the World Cup’s most enduring if morally unsatisfying stories, yet Rossi was also one of two central figures in another controversy that 30 years later is far less well known. It is a story that has been marginalised with the passing of time, but this week was given fresh significance.
In the early stages of the 1982 World Cup, rumours began proliferating about Rossi and his team-mate Antonio Cabrini. Pictured together topless on a balcony, innuendo spread and whispers about a homosexual affair gained enough credence for one newspaper to report that the two players were “living like man and wife.”
Italy’s response was to impose their famous ‘silenzio stampa’ (media silence), shunning all contact with the press as they fostered a siege mentality that helped inspire them to win the competition.
On Tuesday, it was perhaps a shame that current Azzurri striker Cassano failed to follow the precedent set by his predecessors in the national team. Because prior to the press conference ahead of Thursday’s game against Croatia, the Italian squad was the focus of new rumours regarding homosexuality – still sadly a taboo subject in the world of professional football 30 years on from events in Spain.
Italian journalist Cecchi Paone had written an article claiming that two members of Italy’s Euro 2012 were gay and that coach Cesare Prandelli knew the identity of the players in question. He later elaborated that he had had a relationship with one of the players, who then revealed to him the identity of the other.
In the world of professional football, where sexuality still elicits controversy and salacious gossip is almost an industry unto itself, these comments were bound to cause headlines, and coach Prandelli knew it.
Prandelli is that rare thing in football: a prominent figure not afraid to discuss homophobia and homosexuality in public. He wrote the foreword to Paone’s book, entitled ‘The Champion in Love. The Banned Games of Sport’, explaining how “homophobia is racism and it is indispensable that we make further steps to look after all aspects of individuals living their own lives, including sporting figures.”
Sadly, though, a private note of caution from this more enlightened soul to his somewhat unpredictable forward prior to Tuesday’s press conference did not deter Cassano from making pretty disgusting remarks to the press.
"The (national) coach had warned me that you would ask me this question," Cassano said. "If I say what I think....I hope there are none. But if there are queers here, that's their business."
A formal apology on the Italian federation’s website was a fairly rapid response to try and calm the resulting storm, yet the damage had already been done, Cassano’s slur spreading through the ether.
There have now been calls for Prandelli to drop Cassano for Wednesday’s game as Italy’s national team contend with another mini-crisis. But as history has shown us, such controversies often prove to be nothing but bumps on the road to glory for the Azzurri.