In the last year, a scandal has been raging through the lower echelons of Italian football. Calcioscommesse, or “football betting”, has involved players fixing matches for betting purposes, paid off by criminal gangs to assure a result. In some cases, there has been coordination between both teams involved, like when Bari players offered the Lecce ownership to throw the derby. Bari defender Andrea Masiello was paid €300k to score a decisive own goal in the match, which helped Lecce avoid relegation.
Starting out originally in the Lega Pro and Serie B divisions, the scandal has crept up towards the higher levels of calcio. Bari and Lecce players have been charged, Atalanta and their players investigated for various Serie B match-fixing (on their way to promotion), leading to point deductions for the club in the past season and a 3.5-year ban for Cristiano Doni, their captain.
As the scope of Calcioscommesse spread, the FIGC has recently charged 13 clubs, between Serie B and Serie A, of participating in illegal betting schemes, including Siena at the time that Antonio Conte was coach. There are two matches that the FIGC claims Conte was aware of irregularities, Siena vs. Novara and Albinoleffe vs. Siena. Three Siena players have been directly charged with committing match-fixing for betting purposes: Filippo Carobbio, Marcelo Larrondo, and Robert Vitiello.
One of these players in particular, Carobbio, who has been charged for activities at other clubs such as Bari and has since outed other members of the conspiracy in exchange for a reduced sentence), has come out and claimed that Antonio Conte was fully aware of the match-fixing that went on at Siena. He stated that there was a tactical meeting before the Novara game in which then-coach Conte announced to the team that Novara had come to an agreement on fixing the match, so Siena would lose 1-0. Carobbio explicitly stated that the entire team agreed to do so.
Carobbio’s statements have changed frequently: he first alleged that the match-fixing started in January, only to changed his view later and say that it only started in the Spring, when promotion was assured. When interviewed in January, Carobbio never mentioned Conte’s name. It wasn’t until 6 weeks later when he accused Conte of being in on the fix. Carobbio also claimed that the Siena players arranged the fix, only to later add that Siena President Mezzaroma insisted on the result, and passed it on through Conte. It’s interesting to note that in other cases, FIGC chief prosecutor Stefano Palazzi had not considered Carobbio’s statements credible. And while Carobbio alleged Conte was guilty of match-fixing, Palazzi charged Conte with merely being aware of the fix, but then failing to report it.
The FIGC has not indicted Antonio Conte for disciplinary judgement for the serious charge of “match fixing”, thus, rejecting the idea that Conte arranged the fix with Novara or Albinoleffe. Rather, they have charged him with being guilty of “omission”, i.e. of knowing of the plot, but not contacting the authorities. The same charge has been issued to Simone Pepe for his time at Udinese, who was reportedly offered a fix between Udinese and Bari, rejected the idea, but did not report it. Leonardo Bonucci meanwhile, has been charged with direct responsibility with several other Bari players for the Udinese vs. Bari (3-3) match, and could face serious sanctions.
This famous pre-Novara tactical meeting seems very questionable. 23 Siena players were present at this technical reunion, and have since signed sworn affidavits that a fix was not discussed, agreeing with Conte’s defense. And yet, none of these players have been charged with failing to report the incident, nor the Siena ownership, nor the Novara coaching staff. It’s a similar situation for the Albinoleffe game: the FIGC alleged there was another discussion of a fix, yet no other Siena players have been charged with omission. And yet again, neither the Siena nor Albinoleffe ownerships have been directly charged, nor has any Albinoleffe coach.
Indeed, Conte’s players have given strong defenses. Ferdinando Coppola, goalkeeper for Conte both at Siena and Atalanta, strongly denied the discussion of any fix. “There is nothing true in this, Conte and [Siena President] Mezzaroma are innocent. I remember that tactical reunion, we had just lost to Portogruaro. I remember the emotion of listening to Conte, who exhorted us to win after the loss.” Many Siena players were interviewed by the FIGC, each swearing the team never discussed illegal activities, thus contradicting Carobbio’s statements. Yet for some reason, Palazzi has thus far preferred the word of a criminal over the sworn word of 23 men. The question is:
If Conte was charged of hearing of the fix at these tactical unions and failing to report it, why have these 23 Siena players not been charged, all of which who were at the same meetings and swore nothing happened?”
Filippo Carobbio has been involved with Hungarian betting syndicates in the scandal, charged with fixing many games, including matches at Siena in which Conte isn’t implicated at all. And yet, in exchange for rolling over and granting testimony against others (who committed far less serious crimes), he’s getting a reduced sentence. In the most recent round of deals, Carobbio was given a 4-month sentence for several instances of match-fixing, only one month more than Conte’s plea deal would have been.
It’s been a similar situation for Leonardo Bonucci. Like Carobbio, chief “witness” Andrea Masiello has been rolling on other targets in exchange for a lighter sentence, among which the Juventus ex-Bari defender. One of the senior officials in Bari’s medical staff has rubbished the fact that Bonucci was involved. “I hear the name of Belmonte, Bonucci, and Pepe, but these men weren’t involved because if it were true, I’d have known. The money after that match was taken by Andrea Masiello, who told me it was money for charity. I know that Bonucci is a good person, if you ask me, his name was dragged into this, even if innocent, because his relationship was poor with Andrea Masiello. The two rarely talked.”
One of the chief issues we must remember here, is that this is a SPORTING JUSTICE trial, not a criminal/civil trial. Thus, there is not the same burden of proof… and not the same person holding it. In traditional Western countries, you are “innocent until proven guilty.” In sporting trials in Italy, it is the individual charged with the crime who has to prove their innocence, which is an awfully difficult thing to do if… you’re charged with knowing of match-fixing but failing to report it!! How does one prove they did not have knowledge?
This brings us to the recent discussion of a plea bargain. There were 61 charged cases in Calcioscommesse earlier this year, in which 19 made plea deals, 38 were convicted, and 4 absolved. If convicted, Antonio Conte and Simone Pepe could face a year or more of suspension, whereas Leonardo Bonucci is looking at potentially a 3-year suspension. While Andrea Agnelli has stated those implicated have Juve’s full support, it’s rumored the club encouraged Conte, Pepe, and Bonucci to accept a plea deal. For Conte, it was include a €200k fine (donated to charity) and a 3-month suspension effective August 1st, which would prevent him from accessing the team bench on matchdays until November 1st, but enable him to still conduct training sessions.
It’s worth noting that under Article 23 of the ‘Code of Sport Justice’, a plea bargain specifies there is no admission of guilt by the accused. The process would thus formally neither admit nor deny the charges originally presented, which in the eyes of Conte, Bonucci, and Pepe is very important as they yet maintain their innocence (and are very much inclined to fight the charges).
For Bonucci, who faces a ban of potentially up to 3 years, it seemed — by early reports — that a plea deal would initially involve a full year suspension (leaving Bonucci stuck between a rock and a hard place on whether to plea or fight the accusations in court). However, if the charges against the Juve center-back were demoted from “sporting fraud” to “omission” (as they have in the case of Marcelo Larrondo), Bonucci could get away with only 3 months.
In Conte’s case, a plea bargain would certainly damage the coach’s reputation, but it could be better than attempting to clear his name, which would leave a heavy cloud of uncertainty over the current season and possibly result in a longer suspension. His name has already been sullied by those newspapers eager to drag him through the mud, despite the lack of evidence or questionable testimony of a soon-to-be convicted felon.
In a surprising plot twist, the plea deal negotiated by FIGC chief prosecutor Palazzi with Conte’s lawyers earlier this week (and which Conte was persuaded to accept), was however rejected by the sporting tribunal judges, who considered it to be too light! The court counter-offer included a 5-month suspension and a €100k fine, but irritated by the first rejection and fueled by a desire to clear his name, Antonio Conte rejected it, choosing instead to go to trial. The issue will now proceed into a full court hearing, with Palazzi seeking the regular 15-month suspension for all cases of “omission”.
Leonardo Bonucci and Simone Pepe have a bit of time left to decide on a plea bargain. Next Friday, the sporting court of justice and Palazzi will decide on what plea deal to offer the two Juventini. While Juventus encouraged Pepe, Bonucci, and Conte to accept a plea deal, things may change in the next week following the court’s rejection of Palazzi’s plea offer to Conte.
Unsurprisingly, Juve’s upper management reacted very strongly to the sporting judges’ decision, especially after they had encouraged their coach to accept the deal offered by Palazzi. Juventus posted a formal media blackout (silenzio stampa) on their home page, handed Leonardo Bonucci the captain’s armband for the Benfica friendly, and then came out with a strongly worded statement from Andrea Agnelli regarding the FIGC and their judicial system:
It appears that the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio and its system of sporting justice continue to operate in complete disregard of law and equity. For a long while now, and with a great sense of responsibility, Juventus and its employees have maintained a calm and consistent approach in their dealings with the Institutions and in the face of stances which, right from the outset, appeared to suggest the club and its representatives were once again under attack.
The results pertaining to the various charges are littered with contradictions and tend to protect only those who have committed infractions. This is a paradox and unacceptable.
The decision taken yesterday by the FIGC’s national disciplinary committee, which opposed a plea bargain that had already been considered and approved by the federal prosecutor, is testimony to the complete inadequacy of the sporting justice system and the Federation within which it operates.
Once again, I detect an inability to interpret the requirements of today’s top-level professional game. Having chosen to make a plea bargain in order to limit the damage of an antiquated and contradictory system of sporting justice, one is confronted with a dictatorial system that deprives the club and its employees of any right to defend themselves and their honour.
It is the respectability of individuals that is being put in danger and therefore it is up to them to have the final say on the decisions to be made, in the knowledge that Juventus will support them at every level of the judicial system. It will be a tough and demanding season, but as a club we remain entirely focused on the team’s performances on the pitch and our target is once again to win trophies come May 2013.
Whatever the reason Conte has been targeted, his treatment is unfair and is only further proof of the antiquated, corrupt, arbitrary mess of a judicial system present in Italy. But this will not be like Calciopoli back in 2006. Back then, the media massacred Juventus in the court of public opinion. The entire board of directors resigned, and the new management simply rolled over and never fought the charges.
The new Juventus will not roll over.