Napoli’s arbitrary punishment only encourages the conspiracy theorists

Here’s something I wrote for Soccerlens

cannavaro grava Napolis arbitrary punishment only encourages the conspiracy theorists

Cannavaro and Grava try to keep positive

As the dust settles on Napoli’s punishment over an aborted match fix three seasons ago, the simmering sense of resentment built up over years of enmity with the north shows no sign of abating.

The  €70,000 fine is a pittance, the six month suspensions to two players, one of whom is key defender Paolo Cannavaro, more galling, but it’s the loss of two points which is the major bone of contention. It’s a penalty which serves merely to encourage talk of conspiracy, and in Serie A that’s a subject which is always near the surface of the debate anyway.

The punishment leads from a confession by ex-Napoli keeper Matteo Gianello that he attempted to fix a game in Genoa on the last day of the 2009-10 season. The match in question, which Gianello did not feature in, saw Sampdoria beat the Partenopei 1-0 through a goal from Giampaolo Pazzini.

The outcome affected nothing: Samp had already clinched a Champions League spot and couldn’t finish higher than fourth; Napoli were guaranteed sixth place.

It was a classic Serie A set-up: the biscotto or biscuit, where games come to a mutually-acceptable outcome (called a biscuit either because the game is shared, like a snack, or after the practise of feeding doped biscuits to horses to fix results) is a long-established tradition in Italy. It puts AC Milan’s sponsorship deal with McVitie’s in a different light though!

However, there’s no suggestion that this game was a biscotto. Gianello says the club was never aware of the fix, and the deal collapsed because both Cannavaro and Gianluca Grava, who were central defensive starters in the match, turned him down flat.

Gianello fits the profile of the sort of player who’d be approached for a fix perfectly. He hadn’t appeared for the club since the previous season, having played just forty-nine games for them in six seasons, most of them when the club spent a spell down in Serie C1 after going out of business with debts of €70 million in 2004.

A player with little to lose, his career going nowhere, is ripe for the approach and Gianello found the opportunity to supplement his income irresistible, but the players he approached had much more at stake.

Nevertheless, the bans for Cannavaro and Grava are understandable, if painful for a club which chose them to launch this season’s kit as they represent “the two symbols of Naples”. The Italian Federation ought to be applauded for trying to take serious action against match-fixing when many expected them to just brush the issue under the table.

Both players were aware of an attempt to fix the game and told nobody: therefore, they failed to take their little piece of responsibility for cleaning up the game, however naively, and if an exemplary punishment is required to show just how unacceptable fixing is, then so be it.

However, the fact that they told nobody surely exonerates their club, and that’s where the talk of conspiracy kicks in.

Serie A is in danger of becoming too convoluted to follow. With Napoli docked two points for the involvement of a past player in match fixing, how long before it descends into farce like the Tour de France, with the records retrospectively rewritten?

juve 30 Napolis arbitrary punishment only encourages the conspiracy theorists

Juventus send a message to the FIGC

Or should I say further rewritten: the past decade has already seen Juventus stripped of a 30th scudetto, which they nevertheless included in both the decoration of their new stadium and their pointed title celebrations last Summer, perhaps we’re already through the looking glass.

After all, currently a quarter of the sides in Serie A are operating with points deductions this season. Apart from Napoli, Sampdoria and Torino have lost one point each, Atalanta are two down, while Siena started the campaign on -6.

There’s also been vague talk that Napoli could be removed from this season’s Europa League, which seems highly unlikely, but there are liable to be future repercussions.

UEFA rules state, in order to be eligible for European football, a club:

“must not have been directly and/or indirectly involved… in any activity aimed at arranging or influencing the outcome of a match”

If Napoli fail in their appeal against the decision, they’ll clearly be barred from Europe next season.

It’s domestically that the Napoli punishment opens up a whole new can of vermicelli though. Stripping a team of a title when it was found guilty of nobbling referees during the campaign is one thing: knocking points off a club because an ex-player was guilty of corruption two years earlier, despite the club and its players denying they knew of his actions, is something completely different.

gianello scheda 130x130 Napolis arbitrary punishment only encourages the conspiracy theorists

Matteo Gianello: Not laughing now

This all seems terribly illogical: two players are banned for not reporting an attempt to fix a match, then their club is punished despite the fact they didn’t tell them anything about it.

Gianello says Napoli had no knowledge of the fix, and the Italian Football Federation, FIGC, don’t seem to dispute this fact, yet found them “objectively responsible” because their players were aware.

Interestingly, the FIGC have justified the decision by saying they’re striving for consistency, but last season Chievo Verona found themselves in an almost identical position to Napoli when Stefano Bettarini, an ex-Italian international who never actually played a game for them, was found guilty of taking part in match-fixing for a second time: the club successfully entered a plea bargain and weren’t docked any points.

The danger here is that the credibility of Serie A will be seriously damaged. Paranoia and bias rule in Italian football, and with some justification. Everyone believes that Juventus are favoured by the authorities, except for Juve themselves, who think the whole world is against them.

Knocking two points off one of their title rivals will have far greater repercussions than slapping a punishment on Torino: it adds fuel to the already runaway fire of conspiracy which tears through the game.

Naturally, Napoli have rejected the decision:

“Any decision must be made before the start of a tournament or at the end of it.

There has been enough time to evaluate and make a decision since the 2009-10 season.

We are confident that true justice can be applied to the separate decisions, based on law and equity.”

An understandable sentiment, although it would be interesting to see what would happen if they were put to the test: if Napoli won the Scudetto by one point this season and were then docked two “at the end of it”, would they say “Fair enough” and leave it at that!

The Italian culture of deferred, tortuous justice means this is far from over. Antonio Conte, after all, saw his 10 month ban commuted to 4, and Silvio Berlusconi’s punishment-dodging is well documented.

It’s difficult to have faith in a justice system which is clearly up for negotiation, and the credibility of Serie A is seriously compromised when a random punishment can have a material impact on its outcome.

There are still two levels of appeal the judgement must survive before it is confirmed, and it’s not the Italian way for it to emerge undiluted. Cannavaro’s agent Enrico Fedele confirmed as much, claiming:

“I hope and am convinced that the TNAS court will bring the truth to light. After all, it has already overturned other sentences in this scandal.

“The Federal Court will give Napoli back a point, but we hope the club can get away with a fine and the players are cleared.”

Such confidence is unlikely to be misplaced. There are also doubts about the basis on which the punishment is being meted out. Like the Conte case, the evidence of one person, who has confessed a fix, is being accepted by the authorities as sufficient grounds to take action.

Cannavaro’s lawyer is already looking to argue that Gianello is an unreliable witness, who has already changed his mind several times.

At least Napoli’s recent collapse in form might rescue the FIGC: the way their title challenge is falling apart, two points here and there might be easily forgotten by the end of the season. Last weekend they were winning at home to struggling Bologna with five minutes left, but collapsed to a 3-2 defeat.

The scorer of the winning goal? Daniele Portanova, an ex-Napoli defender, making his first appearance after completing a four-month ban for failing to report that he’d been approached to fix a match. Even in the wild west of Serie A, you couldn’t make it up.

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