It sometimes feels like Italian football is trapped in a vicious circle from which it can never escape. Every mistake by a match official stokes the fires of conspiracy theorists everywhere. This weekend the flames were licking up to the very top of the table.
If you hadn’t been watching Serie A for a while you might think it all started with the Calciopoli scandal. But this game of bitter recrimination over who enjoys most favours from the men in black has been going on for decades. And, ultimately, it is hard for anyone to emerge as a winner.
As so often happens, it was Juventus in the eye of the storm. Even as you read this, their lunchtime clash at Catania has probably still not been fully digested by home President Antonino Pulvirenti. His post-match opinions were spat out like machine-gun fire.
“Bergessio’s goal was disallowed by the Juve bench, the linesman had given it,” he raged. “There are seven referees out there and none of them saw anything. This is more than just psychological subservience. It is the third time this has happened to us after Parma and Inter. You saw what happened, we had a good goal disallowed and Juve got one which should have been ruled out.”
He concluded, when asked what the club could do about it, with a colourful response too crude to repeat. Suffice to say he felt powerless to do anything to address the injustices which television replays confirmed his team had suffered. The Turin giants do not take such criticisms lying down.
“We dominated the game – 11 shots to one – and Andujar was Man of the Match, I think that speaks volumes,” retorted stand-in Bianconero boss Angelo Alessio. “There was only one team making the play, Juventus, while Catania tried only to defend.”
That kind of tit-for-tat poison has been the bread-and-butter of the Italian game over the years, unfortunately. The insinuation is often that, at best, referees subconsciously favour the most wealthy, powerful and best-supported teams in the League. At worst, it bubbles over into talk of conspiracy and corruption.
And things only got worse when Lazio, a team hanging on to Juve’s coat-tails, were the victims of similar errors in Florence. Outplayed in the first half, they had a good goal disallowed, a strong shout for a penalty rejected and two men sent off. In the circumstances, boss Vlad Petkovic showed admirable and impeccable restraint. If only more would follow his example.
“We should not diminish the merits of our opponents, Fiorentina played good football,” he said. “They played to win – but without these incidents they would have deserved it even more.”
It is an attitude which really needs to extend throughout Serie A. Instead, Torino were at it as well, complaining about the red card which played a big part in swinging their clash with Parma in their opponents’ favour. The subtext is that they expect to get better treatment from match officials next week.
The problem with this approach is that it is a dead-end from which there is no escape. Either you accept that referees make mistakes in good faith or you believe they are the result of something much more sinister. But if the latter is the case, is there really any point in watching games or being involved in the sport at all?
There is, however, a wider debate to be had about the quality of officiating from some individuals. There remains a group of card and whistle-happy referees who have made inconsistency a hallmark of their performances. Those kind of displays simply infuriate everyone involved in the game and give fuel to those who believe malign forces are at work.
But a quick look north should confirm that poor officiating is not the preserve of Italy. The English Premiership saw Liverpool denied a perfectly good winner in the Merseyside derby while Manchester United had an offside goal stand to clinch a big match victory over Chelsea. There was outrage and anger, yes, but there is unlikely to be all the insinuation and innuendo that would have accompanied such decisions in Serie A.
The recriminations did not stop in the Sunday evening fixtures. Roma somehow contrived to throw away a two-goal lead against Udinese and suffered the humiliation of Toto Di Natale producing a Francesco Totti-like ‘cucchiaio’ penalty to clinch a comeback win. That the spot-kick was soft, and apparently awarded by the touchline official, only made it hurt the more.
At the San Paolo – with fans wearing face-masks to protest against racism against Neapolitans – it was Chievo who felt aggrieved. They claimed a penalty kick should have been awarded when Sergio Pellissier was held back in the box, but it looked a somewhat optimistic claim. The home side were worth their morale-boosting win which keeps them in the Scudetto hunt.
There was less controversy but just as much relief in Milan’s win over Genoa. It was Stephan El Shaarawy, almost inevitably, who clinched the victory which gave the Rossoneri and their under-fire boss Max Allegri a little breathing space. However, it could yet all run out in the next few days.
The result of all this whiff of suspicion of subterfuge has been to create a climate that calcio could well have lived without. Saturday night, after a midweek round of matches, will see the Derby d’Italia between Juventus and Inter. It is a fixture which already carries more baggage than a family trying to dodge Ryanair suitcase charges. Every incident will be put under the microscope and dissected in excruciating detail. On current form, don’t expect the dust to die down on that one until much before Christmas.