Calciopoli fuels Italy's obsession with referees

May 16, 2007
By Mark Meadows

MILAN, May 16 (Reuters) - Italian referees have received more media attention than many of the country's players this season after last year's match-fixing scandal heightened scrutiny of their performances.

Criticism of referees is nothing new in world soccer but the Italians have taken the analysis to a new level even though there has been no hint of impropriety from any of the officials still working.

Fans in other countries await team news on Fridays ahead of weekend fixtures but in Italy all anyone wants to know is the name of the referee.

Club websites flash up their assigned referee as soon as it is announced and then post detailed biographies and lists of recent controversial decisions.

The Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper publishes a huge matrix of numbers relating to referees, including home and away penalties awarded and performance marks given to them by journalists.

In most European nations, the referee is subjected to abuse on the field but when he leaves the stadium and the post-match recriminations are over he is largely forgotten. He may be blamed for incompetence but rarely accused of cheating.

Italy's obsession with referees was highlighted in the 2002 World Cup when the nation blamed Ecuadorean referee Byron Moreno for their elimination by South Korea. Conspiracy theorists said South Korea were being favoured as they were tournament hosts.

Last season's match-fixing scandal or "calciopoli", in which giants Juventus were demoted for trying to secure favourable officials, has intensified the fixation.

Top referee Massimo De Santis was banned for four years after being found guilty of conspiring to rig Serie A games.

Other teams had points docked but the focus was on Juventus, who had been accused of gaining fortunate refereeing decisions long before the scandal broke.

The subject continues to be a favourite topic even as Juve fight for promotion from the less than glamorous Serie B back up to the top flight.

On Saturday, referee Nicola Ayroldi awarded Juventus a late, debateable penalty and sent off two Bologna players for protesting.

Bologna sporting director Fabrizio Salvatori was furious.

"The disappointment is huge. Against Juventus, we are always unlucky. It could not have been a penalty. How do you justify a decision like that to the people?" he told the club's website.

"It's understandable and logical that someone loses their patience in circumstances like this. If that was a penalty, they would have to give 10 or 20 in every game."

Cesare Gussoni, the head of Italian referees, criticised Ayroldi, the first time he has openly done such a thing, and also expressed disappointment in emerging referee Luca Marelli who had faced criticism for his handling of another Serie B game, Rimini v Bari.

"Ayroldi and Marelli were rather out of form and when a player is not at his best, the player is not criticised but the coach who put him on the pitch," Gussoni told reporters.

"Therefore I am the referee's assigner and I would have done well to have kept them both on the bench. We can say that it has been a matter of inexact decisions that deserve criticism."

Gussoni, who has been in charge of referees for the last six months, said he would like Italy's most famous former referee Pierluigi Collina to be the next assignment secretary.

"The whole day in Serie A and the rest in B went quite well but it weighs heavily that two matches went badly, even if no one is questioning their good faith," added Gussoni.

"If any referee has made a mistake in bad faith, he will be heavily punished."

Last month the Italian Referees' Association (AIA) suspended seven referees and two linesmen after an investigation by magistrates threw up new allegations of match-fixing connected to the original inquiry.

In Germany, referee Robert Hoyzer was sentenced to two years and five months in prison in 2005 for fixing matches as part of a two-million-euro ($2.7-million) betting fraud.

Such cases are isolated but it has not stopped Italy from distrusting every referee.