Words: Martin Mork
Several years before Calciopoli, there was Passaportopoli – the scandal that saw South American players trying to get around new limitations on non-EU players by finding long-lost Italian, Spanish or Portuguese ancestors that would guarantee them a passport. If they couldn’t locate a sufficiently European bloodline, that extra branch of the family tree could always be sketched in…
This controversy had so much that represents that particular Serie A approach to scandal: seeking short-cuts, ways to bend the rules until they are no longer recognisable and ultimately resolving the matter by just scrapping the rule that started it.
Perhaps none of it would ever have come to light if not for a particularly attentive Polish border official. In September 2000, Udinese travelled to Poland for a UEFA Cup tie against Polonia Warszawa only for Brazilian players Silva Warley and Valentim Alberto to be stopped at the border for possessing fake Portuguese passports.
The local police in Udine had to take action and found falsified passports belonging to the Brazilian trident Warley, Jorginho and Alberto, whilst Paraguayan Alejandro Da Silva was also registered with forged documents to help the club beat the limitations of five ‘non-Europeans’ in the squad, and only three included on matchdays.
Police officer Giuseppe Di Donno revealed that the Udine department had ‘managed to establish the false identities thanks to the signature of the civil servant featuring on the document’, getting confirmation by the Portuguese embassy. “The civil servant in question never existed, so we therefore treated the passport as false.”
Reigning champions Lazio had already been in trouble the year before, when Argentina international Juan Sebastian Veron was in the spotlight because of his naturalisation papers. The ‘distant relative’ from southern Italy couldn’t help him out – as the alleged great-grandparent from Calabria didn’t exist – and the talented midfielder was changed back to Southern American on their books.
Roma coach Fabio Capello was raging at the fact that the Scudetto winners Lazio were getting away with ‘cheating’ and waved his finger at the local rivals. “Last year Veron was ‘European’, this season they’ve re-registered him as ‘non-European’,” Capello said. “Ours is the only Federation that takes no action. If someone is a cheater, they should be penalised.” These were words he’d live to regret.
On October 8, 2000, only one week into the new season, reports flooded into newsrooms across Europe. Italian football, still recovering from a match-fixing scandal in the Coppa Italia, was rocked by another outrage.
The issue was raised weekly in the newspapers, but the FIGC didn’t act until five months had passed, starting their own enquiry. The caretaker Federation President was desperate to keep his relationship healthy with the voters among the top clubs in Italy and kept the investigation rather low-key.
A good five months after the Friuli side’s Brazilian duo were arrested in Poland, 15 players from six different teams emerged as having false paperwork, including Milan goalkeeper Nelson Dida and Inter’s Uruguayan midfielder Alvaro Recoba. The others were Alberto, Jorginho, Warley, Da Silva (Udinese), Dede, Jeda (Vicenza), Bartelt, Fabio Junior (Roma), Thomas Job, Ondoa and Francis Ze (Sampdoria). They were all suspended for between six months and a year. In the initial trial, only Veron was cleared, because he genuinely did believe there was an Italian ancestor. It seems the lawyer he hired to trace the family tree found it easier to simply make one up.
Somewhat embarrassingly for Capello and his complaint of cheaters, Roma’s South American duo Gustavo Bartelt and Fabio Junior were also suspended for a year for using false passports. Recoba was dropped from the line-up ahead of Inter’s match against Bologna on February 4 and returned to Uruguay. Luckily for him, the Nerazzurri stood by Chino and were waiting when his six-month ban expired in December 2001.
What usually happens in Italian football when it turns out half a dozen clubs have been breaking the rules? They do what’s easiest and just scrap the pesky regulation. Only days before the match between title challengers Juventus and Roma, the Federation decided to abandon the limits on nationality, letting the Giallorossi field more than three non-EU players.
Juventus were furious, as their fourth and fifth non-EU players were not very influential, but despite CEO Luciano Moggi fighting the mid-season change of regulation, a new civil employment law meant Roma could finally play Hidetoshi Nakata, Marcos Assuncao, Walter Samuel, Marcos Cafu and Gabriel Batistuta in the decisive fixture ending 2-2 towards the end of the campaign. Nakata scored the decisive equaliser and suddenly Capello no longer cared about bending the rules.
The law had been wiped out, but sanctions were taken against directors and players involved in the forging of documents. Players were banned for between six months and a year, directors were suspended and clubs given hefty fines. Just another Serie A scandal.