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The Azzurri, No Worry

June 19, 2006
June 19, 2006

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June 19, 2006

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The Azzurri, No Worry

Italy stayed focused against Ghana despite an investigation into betting and match-fixing that has caught up team members

ON THE STREETS ofHanover before the second Group E match on Monday, Italian fans were having ahigh time-drinking beer, scarfing down all manner of wursts and having theirpictures taken with supporters of Ghana's Black Stars. But when talk turned tothe Azzurri, which was to open the World Cup under the cloud of an Italianleague match-fixing scandal, the mood grew somber. "To beat Ghana won't besimple," one fan said. "The players will have a problem putting [thescandal] out of mind."

This is an article from the June 19, 2006 issue Original Layout

The Italians werefocused enough to get the result they needed, a 2-0 win, but it wasn't easy.Italian coach Marcello Lippi expected chippy play from the Black Stars, Cupnewcomers who are ranked No. 48 in the world, and he got it: They committed 22fouls to Italy's eight. But it wasn't until the Azzurri broke through in the40th minute on an Andrea Pirlo screamer that Ghana began dishing out punishmentinstead of playing with panache. Italian playmaker Francesco Totti, alreadystruggling to regain his fitness after breaking his ankle in February, left inthe 55th minute after Ghana defender John Pantsil used Totti's lower leg as astepladder. (Totti should be able to play against the U.S. on Saturday, butmidfielder Gennaro Gattuso and defender Gianluca Zambrotta, who missed Monday'smatch with injuries, are not expected to return.)

Though Ghanaexposed chinks in the vaunted Italian defense, Lippi didn't seem too concerned.After the match he took a gentle swipe at his opponents ("Sometimes one hadthe impression Ghana would be stronger than this") and argued with areporter who had noted that the Black Stars had three good scoring chancesearly (which they certainly did). Then Lippi, who had never before coached orplayed in the World Cup, was asked how it felt to walk into the stadium."It's a fantastic thing," he said, "and it's really worth livingthrough this experience."

It was probably awelcome relief. In the two weeks leading up to their Cup opener, Lippi andcaptain Fabio Cannavaro were among those questioned by Italian prosecutorslooking into match fixing, gambling by players and referee tampering by teamsin the nation's top league, Serie A. (Fearful of ref tampering at the WorldCup, FIFA has sequestered all 81 referees and linesmen outside of Frankfurt ata wooded resort that is patrolled by armed guards.) One of those teams,Juventus, has a former coach (Lippi) and five current players on the nationalteam, among them Cannavaro and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who is accused ofbetting $2.5 million on sports events, including Serie A games. (Buffon deniesthe charge.) Depending on the outcome of the investigation, which is expectedto wrap up during the World Cup, Juventus could be stripped of its 2005-06league title and demoted to the second division-the equivalent of Bud Selig'stelling the White Sox to give back their World Series trophy and pack off toTriple A.

Italy hasn't seensuch controversy since the early 1980s, when more than 30 players and officialsin Serie A were caught up in a bribery scandal. At the '82 World Cup, when theItalians were hounded by the press, they closed ranks, shut out the press-asilenzio stampa-and won their third (and last) Cup, giving the nation amuch-needed lift. Knowing that another strong performance might again helpmitigate Italy's sense of shame, or at least keep stories about the scandal offthe front page for a while, Cannavaro called the match against Ghana "thebiggest of our lives."

Now the Azzurrifaces a desperate U.S. team on Saturday. As the veteran Cannavaro surely knows,games have a way of getting bigger as the tournament goes on.

PHOTOROBERT GHEMENT/EPAITALIAN TAKEOUT For a day at least, Cannavaro (5) rose above the scandal.