Here we go again: Italy in another match-fixing fug

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Andrea Pirlo has had to suffer through it all before. Ahead of the 2006 World Cup finals, the then AC Milan midfielder had to face the media to answer accusations that Italian football was rotten to the core.

That was the prelude to Calciopoli, the crippling effects of which are still being felt throughout the game, with the country’s snail-paced judicial system continually dragging the case against former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi through the courts.

So on Wednesday, as the now Juventus midfielder prepared for the Azzurri’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Estonia, he was in no mood to deflect questions on another scandal about to explode in Italy.

“How disgusting,” he said of claims that a criminal betting ring – said to be fronted by former Lazio and Italy international Giuseppe Signori – had been fixing matches in Serie B (which happens to be sponsored by a betting company) and the lower division Pro Lega. There are also question marks over a number of top-flight matches, including Inter-Siena and Brescia-Bologna from this season.

The story became more concrete when magistrates in the northern city of Cremona, led by the straight-talking Guido Salvini, co-ordinated the arrest of 16 individuals – nine of whom were immediately put under house arrest, including the aforementioned Signori.

Other high-profile names amongst the journey men involved include former Sampdoria full-back Stefano Bettarini – the one-time pretty boy of Serie A who has spent his time since retiring in the gossip pages photographed on the arm of some young TV wannabe – and Atalanta captain Cristiano Doni, who played for Italy at the 2002 World Cup. Naturally all three are pleading their innocence in what has been christened the Calcioscommese [football betting] scandal.

The probe was triggered by a very strange incident even by Italian standards and surrounded Cremona’s club Cremonese and their third division match against Paganese. A number of Cremonese players complained that they felt ill at half-time; as the story developed, their then goalkeeper Marco Paoloni has been accused of feeding his team-mates sedatives before kick-off and at half-time.

Cremonese still managed to win the game but suspicions had been raised within the club after some questionable performances from the keeper, who was moved on in January to fellow Pro Lega side Benevento. Paolini should have been preparing for a play-off tie this Sunday, but instead finds himself incarcerated facing some very serious charges and potentially the end of his career at the age of 27.

Signori leaves the police station yesterday

Magistrates are under no doubt that Paoloni – an AS Roma youth product who never made the top-flight grade and, along with his wife, had run up tens of thousands of Euros in debts – is a key figure in their case. Among a list of charges against him is attempting to convince Lecce players to concede a high number of goals against Inter. (The match ended 1-0.)

Bets of up to €150,000 had been placed on matches that probably didn't merit a fiver at best, which has led to a belief that the sums were being laundered by criminal organisations. Betting agencies throughout the country have been searched and the homes of betting operators raided, as have been the offices of an accountancy firm.

The accused called their legal advisers, the clubs dismissed the investigation as comical and the Pro Lega president Marco Macalli instructed lawyers to bring a civil case against those who had damaged his federation’s reputation – but judge Savini remained resolute and warned that the evidence was just too compelling.

No wonder La Gazzetta Dello Sport ran the headline “Football infected.” Corriere dello Sport went for “Betting earthquake” and claimed that the 18 games under investigations were only the tip of the iceberg. It was left to Tuttosport to sum up what Pirlo had lamented, but it is not the first time that betting irregularities have dogged Italian football.

Paolo Rossi, no less, was found guilty of playing a role in the Totonero [black pools] match-fixing scandal in 1980; having been banned for three years he had his sentence reduced in time to win the Golden Boot – and the World Cup – at Spain 82.

Now with so many matches every week and 132 registered companies taking bets online and off, it's a boom market – and unsurprisingly corruption accusations are surfacing as Italy once again reveals its dark underbelly.