A Touch of Scandal

Forget red wine; forget pasta. Nothing, not even mamma, is more important to the average Italian than soccer. So when what looks to be the biggest money-laundering, game-fixing, mafia-esque scandal in the history of world soccer cripples Italy just weeks before the World Cup, what do the Italians do? They name the player at the crux of the inquest--Juventus star Gianluigi Buffon--to be the national team's goalie.

At one level, the choice is a no-brainer. The Azzurri have long been known for their clampdown defense, and Buffon, 28, is considered one the best goalkeepers in the world. He was named to the 1998 Italian team as a 20-year-old and then started for the 2002 Cup team that lost in a controversial round-three game to host South Korea. With Italy also fielding scoring threats like Luca Toni and Francesco Totti this year, many think the team has its best shot in years of ending a 24-year Cup drought.

That kind of pressure eases a lot of suspicions. Buffon has been accused of betting upwards of ¤2 million on sporting events including Serie A games (though none that he actually tended goal for). He claims that he never bet on Italian games, and stopped placing bets on others last year, when the practice was made illegal. "I'm clean and I want to go to the World Cup," he told reporters after leaving his initial investigative interview. "I've always respected the rules."

To be sure, Buffon's alleged crime pales in comparison with many of the other allegations in this complex national scandal. The most serious charges involve kidnapping and coercion of referees to influence the outcome of crucial and lucrative games and, in some cases, national titles. Some 58 people, including 20 referees, are under suspicion.

Game fixing and referee influencing have been staples of world football for the last quarter century. But thanks to the timing of the scandal in Italy, many sports watchers fear that a shadow could be cast upon the World Cup--which has thus far avoided corruption scandals. If the referees make a bad call, who's to say, based on goings-on in Italy, that they weren't actually paid off to do so?

Yet if Buffon is carrying a cloud into Germany, he's carrying hopes, too: in 1982 star striker Paolo Rossi emerged from a two-year ban for match-fixing to lead the tournament in scoring--and Italy to the title. If an invigorated Buffon helps the Azzuri do the same this year, many sins will be forgiven.