Soccer Teams Demoted in Italian Match-Fixing Scandal

A judge has ruled against teams involved in an Italian soccer-fixing scandal, sending top soccer clubs like Juventus to the sport's minor leagues. Some are worried that the sentences were too tough on the teams, and not harsh enough on the individuals involved.

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Just two weeks ago, Italians were euphoric over their soccer team's victory in the World Cup. Then, five days later, national jubilation was shattered when its three first-division teams were sanctioned for their involvement in a match-fixing scandal.

The punishments have unleashed a wave of protests throughout Italy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

When Cesare Ruperto, the retired judge presiding over the sports tribunal, handed down the sanctions, Italian TV broke into scheduled programming and carried it live.

(Soundbite of Italian television)

POGGIOLI: The legendary Juventus, Italy's most successful club, was relegated to second division and stripped of its last two championships. Lazio and Fiorentina were also relegated, while Milan, owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, will stay in the first division but got a 15-point penalty.

Several club executives, federation officials, and referees directly implicated in the match-fixing scheme were given various degrees of punishment.

The Italian soccer nation is in an uproar. Thirteen of the 23 World Cup champions are players on the relegated teams. In Turin, a Juventus fan grabbed the microphone from a TV reporter to vent his anger.

Unidentified Man (Fan): (Through translator) This is a huge disappointment, because they punished the players, our world champions. Eight of them come from Juventus, and now they're being relegated to the second division.

POGGIOLOI: Fans of the Florence team Fiorentina went even further. Hundreds invaded the city's train station and sat on the rails. They'd been spurred to action by, of all people, one of the country's most admired film and stage directors, Franco Zeffirelli. He had appealed to his fellow Fiorentina fans to stop rail traffic and cut Italy in half as a protest against the punishments.

Even the mayors of cities with relegated teams have joined the fray, passionately defending what they consider their symbols of civic pride. Fans and many Monday morning analysts say the sports tribunal was too tough against the teams and too lenient against the individuals implicated in match rigging. Many fans still hope those sanctions will watered down on appeal.

But not all Italians are indignant.

At an outdoor vegetable market in Rome, vendor Massimo Choli(ph) says the punishments were not too severe.

Mr. MASSIMO CHOLI (Vendor): (Through translator) Those who cheat have to pay. There should not be any leniency or amnesty. Sports should be clean.

POGGIOLI: Economist Tito Boeri(ph), who is also an avid soccer fan, says the sanctions are going to be very costly for the relegated teams.

Mr. TITO BOERI (Italian Economist): They're bound to lose about 50 percent of their revenues in terms of TV rights, basically, and also they are at risk in terms of some contracts with sponsors and other contracts that are related to the performance of the team. Plus, they will have to sell some of the players.

POGGIOLI: In fact, an exodus is under way. Several of the World Cup champions have already signed up with top Spanish teams. Boeri has calculated that Juventus alone is likely to lose $130 million.

The major loss will be rights for pay-TV coverage of matches, nearly monopolized by the top teams. Relegated soccer clubs will lose their largest source of income.

The owners vow they'll appeal the sanctions, so it's not clear when the next seasons' matches will begin and which teams will be allowed to play in European championships.

Italy finds itself in a paradoxical situation. Major international financial institutions estimate that a World Cup victory adds .7 percent to the winner's GDP, mainly thanks to increased to national and international confidence. But foreign observers say those benefits could be wiped out if the country's handling of corruption in soccer is seen as too lenient.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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