Crossing Borders

Italy vs. America

June 9, 2006

Twenty four years ago, Paulo Rossi emerged from two years of suspension for his alleged involvement in a scheme to fix the results of matches and scored six goals to lead Italy to its third World Cup title.

For the past few weeks, another Rossi — Guido Rossi, a recently appointed special commissioner of the soccer federation — has been pondering the use of foreign referees in Italian league (Serie A) matches next season as a response to a spreading investigation regarding officials of major clubs applying pressure to have certain referees assigned to their club's matches.

Most Italian soccer fans struggle to reconcile a passionate love for their teams with suspicions of skullduggery. Fans of Juventus, rivals AC Milan and Inter Milan, and other major clubs also mutually suspicious of each other, and smaller clubs regularly accuse referees to favoring the big clubs.

They unite every two years, when Italy plays prestigious quadrennial tournaments: the European Championship and this year, the World Cup. When Italy beat Germany, 3-1, to win the 1982 World Cup, hundreds of thousands of fans in numerous cities took to the streets to celebrate, and unforgettable scenes of delirious, drenched Italian men and boys — and even a few females — frolicking in fountains were relayed around the world.

Such fanatical support — and the deviousness that sometimes accompanies it — is unknown to most American soccer players, except those who have played in foreign countries. The growth of soccer in America at the recreational and participatory levels is well-documented, yet the 12 professional teams of Major League Soccer are dwarfed by their counterparts in football, basketball, baseball and hockey in scope and salary.

As yet, no gambling scandal has roiled MLS. NFL players have been banned for betting, game-fixing syndicates influencing the results of college basketball games are regularly uncovered, and the gambling activities of former baseball superstar Pete Rose has kept him out of the Hall of Fame. American soccer is years, perhaps decades, removed from the kind of gambling scandal that has embroiled the Italian national team.

There are places in America where soccer is a respected sport, and not all of them are ethnic enclaves. The 1990 U.S. World Cup team included three players — Tony Meola, John Harkes, and Tab Ramos — from the area near Kearny, N.J. All three were sons of men born in other countries: respectively, Italy, Scotland and Uruguay, all of them bastions of soccer.

There's an underlying strata of cheating that is tolerated in soccer. Players often fake being fouled, or use grand theatrics to over-dramatize the slightest contact. American players are not immune to bending the rules, but bending the outcome of a game is quite another matter.

In The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, American author Joe McGinness spends a season with an Italian lower-division soccer club struggling heroically for survival. But once the club's own fate is assured, the players disdainfully disregard any obligation to preserve the sanctity of competition. His illusion shatters.

McGinness reaction is a very American outrage to an acceptance of the way things sometimes work in Italy. What he perceived to be a quaint outpost of rustic innocence was revealed to be no different.

Yet no Italian would condone a player failing to put forth his very best effort when playing for his national team, and this seemingly incongruous complexity is just one example of how different the game is reflected in the identities of the respective nations.

In the 1990 World Cup, Italy beat the U.S., 1-0, in Rome, which was an astonishingly close result considering the relative strength of the teams. When the countries meet again June 17 in Kaiserslautern in the 2006 World Cup, the U.S. will field players from deeply "American" backgrounds: Josh Wolff is from football-mad Georgia, Brian Ching is an avid surfer from Hawaii, Clint Dempsey was raised in an east Texas trailer park, and Eddie Johnson started his life in the housing projects of Bunnell, Fla. We shall see how they, and the rest of the American team do against an Italian national team distracted by scandal.

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