Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Italy head to Euro 2012 with the weight of the world on their shoulders, and Cesare Prandelli’s considerable man management skills will be put to the test as the Azzurri look to avoid a repeat of their humiliating performance at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The spectre of the ongoing investigation into match fixing and betting rings hangs over the squad. A dawn raid on the national training facility at Coverciano saw Domenico Criscito served with notice that he was under investigation after photographs were published of the left-back standing outside a restaurant along with suspects in the case.
The Zenit St. Petersburg full-back, who was a Genoa player when the photos were taken, had his laptop, iPad and mobile phone confiscated by police working under the orders of prosecutors leading the Last Bet operation. The investigation has spanned the length and breadth of the country, from Cremona in Italy’s north to Bari in the south, and within the next 48 hours the findings from Naples should be made public.
By all accounts, Prandelli was not in the loop with regards to what proved to be a fast-moving series of events, but it seems that Italian Football Federation vice-president Demetrio Albertini was aware of what was afoot, as he was among the first on the scene when the police arrived at the training ground shortly after dawn.
Criscito, who was rooming with Inter defender Andrea Ranocchia, was definitely taken by surprise and had to be calmed from his agitated state by Prandelli before being issued with the news that he would be excluded from the squad.
There was no other option as the player could have been called to testify at any time during the month he was due in Poland and Ukraine, but Prandelli still had to sweat on whether another vital member of his team, Leonardo Bonucci, would also be cited.
Police arrive at Italy's training centre on Monday morning
However, the Juventus defender had already given his evidence surrounding his time at Bari and in particular the match against Lecce where captain Andrea Maisella claimed he had helped throw the game by scoring an own-goal.
With high profile arrests of Lazio vice-captain Stefano Mauri, former Genoa midfielder Omar Milanetto and Juventus coach Antonio Conte – the latter in relation to two matches during his spell in charge of Siena in Serie B last season - some of the heat was deflected from the national team.
However, events well away from the shady world of match fixing would further hinder Prandelli’s preparations, when a major earthquake hit the Emilia Romagna area on Tuesday morning.
Italy were due to play Luxembourg in Parma later in the evening, but the decision was taken to cancel the game following further tremors and aftershocks which were also felt in the team hotel.
At the time of writing, 17 people are believed to have been killed, with 300 injured. It was the second quake in the region in just over a week.
Having omitted Ranocchia and Siena striker Mattia Destro from his final 23-man squad, Prandelli will be hoping he can start his preparations in earnest when the team arrive in Zurich on Friday evening, where he will look to finally gave his players a semi-competitive run-out against Russia, before heading to Poland to face a daunting group opener against defending champions Spain.
However, the long shadow of match fixing will not pass quickly, and Gianluigi Buffon’s unfortunate turn of phrase in a recent interview has not helped matters, drawing the spotlight back to the national team.
"Better two injured than one dead," was the goalkeeper’s less than cryptic response to whether it was really organised crime controlling matches or that teams conspired to ensure that a certain result suited both teams.
Prandelli knows he cannot shelter his players from the events unravelling back home, but as with Marcello Lippi when the Calciopoli scandal broke ahead of the 2006 World Cup, he will call for an act of faith from his players that football is really won on the pitch.
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