November 14, 2010, is not a date etched in many people’s memories. Fewer will remember an inconspicuous Serie C game between Paganese and Cremonese. However this match reopened the dark and shameful side of Italian football and its links to organised crime.
Still trying to recover some respectability after the 2006 “Calciopoli” scandal, Italian football’s reputation was tarnished once again with the discovery of a more widespread, and arguably deeper rooted match-fixing problem. The operation that followed was named “Ultima Scommessa” or “The Last Bet.” The investigation included some major names within the Italian game and although many of the fixtures under scrutiny were lower league, the poisonous touch of organised crime extended to the very top when a Serie A game between Inter and Lecce was investigated.
The story starts with Paganese versus Cremonese, after the latter’s goalkeeper, Marco Paoloni, approached his team mates in an attempt to “throw” the game. Unable to convince the team, he decided on a course of action that Italian prosecutor Roberto Di Martino would later describe as “...like a fairy tale or a novel. It is absolute craziness, something unbelievable but it’s all true.”
Quite incredibly, Paloni doped his team mates. Five Cremonese players and one physio complained of feeling unwell after the game and were taken to hospital. Traces of the tranquilliser Lormetazepam were found in their urine, prompting suspicions that their match-day drinks had been doctored. One player was so heavily sedated that he crashed his car during his journey home. Paoloni’s attempts failed as Cremonese won 2-0 but he did succeed in opening a police investigation, one that ultimately led to Ultima Scommessa.
At first, the investigation focused on 17 matches ranging from Lega Pro (Italy’s third tier of professional football), to Serie B and one failed attempt to fix a Serie A match between Inter and Lecce. Inter won the game 1-0 but a surprise name who had placed a substantial bet raised the police’s suspicions.
Former Italian international and Lazio captain, Giuseppe Signori, was brought to the attention of the police after placing a €150,000 bet on the Serie A match between Inter and Lecce, forecasting a 3-0 win for the Milan side. Signori had built a reputation for compulsive gambling and suspicions were raised when he commented on the “guaranteed” three goal victory for the Nerazzurri.
The Cremonese police embarked on a series of operations which included taps on mobile phones and surveillance operations tracing irregular betting patterns. These led the police to criminal organisations, not just from Italy but also from the Far East and South America. Betting companies used to launder the illegally gained money were also discovered in Austria and Finland.
In June 2011 the first arrests were made and included household names such as “Beppe” Signori, Atalanta captain and former Italian International, Cristiano Doni, former Parma and Sampdoria defender Stefano Bettarini and of course the man who instigated the investigation, goalkeeper Marco Paoloni.
Signori was placed under house arrest for placing illegal bets whilst Doni and Bettarini were placed under investigation for being members of a criminal match-fixing organisation, along with former Bari captian Antonio Bellavista. Former Ascoli players Vittorio Micolucci and Vincenzo Sommese were arrested for actively working to fix matches in Serie B and Gianfranco Parlato, who was working with Viareggio as a coach, was also arrested for working to fix Lega Pro matches. Moving swiftly and working with the Italian Football Federation, the first punishments were handed out in August 2011. These ranged from a one year ban from all football activities, to five years for the likes of Bellavista and Signori.
In December 2011, the investigation continued with ever growing pace as over 50 players were charged. Once again, these included some familiar names such as former AC Milan player, Tomas Locatelli, and former Sampdoria midfielder Vincenzo Iacopino. Locatelli and Iacopino received two and three and a half year bans respectively.
At the beginning of 2012, the investigation delved deeper into the polluted world of gambling and Calcio. The names and games grew bigger with Serie A now implicated. Working in association with their compatriots in Bari, the Cremonese police pieced together more fixtures which had been subjected to match-fixing or attempts to match-fix. Those accused didn’t come much bigger than former Juve coach Antonio Conte, who eventually served a four month ban for failing to report an attempted fix in the match between his then club Siena and Novara.
Other Serie A players embroiled in the scandal were Marco Di Vaio, Leonardo Bonucci and Simone Pepe. However they were all acquitted as their accuser, Andrea Masiello, was deemed an unreliable witness due to his own involvement in the scandal, in which he was providing evidence as part of a bargaining plea.
After further investigations, the Bari authorities’ provided evidence that shed light on a number of Bari games that were allegedly fixed. These included Serie B matches against Treviso in May 2008, and Salernitana in May 2009, during which Antonio Conte was again coach, although this time he was not implicated. In Serie A, the matches under speculation are Bari 0-1 Sampdoria in April 2011 and Palermo 2-1 Bari in May 2011.
The list of players convicted for match-fixing makes staggering reading. Guido Angelozzi, Antonio Bellavista, Nicola Belmonte, Simone Bentivoglio, Filippo Carobbio, Marco Esposito, Carlo Gervasoni, Stefano Guberti, Andrea Masiello, Bortolo Mutti, Alessandro Parisi, Daniele Portanova, Marco Rossi, Pierandrea Semeraro, Marcello Sanfelice, Cristian Stellini, Jean Francios Gillet, Vitali Kutuzov and Ivan Rajcic were all found guilty whilst at the Puglia club.
Andrea Masiello confessed to taking €50,000 as a bribe for losing against Lecce in the Puglia derby, ensuring Lecce stayed in Serie A whilst Bari had already been relegated. Macedonian, Hristiyan Ilievski – the alleged head of The Gypsies organised crime gang from Rome – claimed he had approached Bari players when he heard the team was destined for relegation. Masiello said, "He seemed to have clear ideas about what he wanted and what we had to do.” Ilievski claimed that in Bari the local mafia was already involved in match fixing. Bari players have claimed they were under pressure from the heads of ‘ultra’ groups to throw games at the end of the season to assist betting scams.
One player, Carlo Gervasoni, proved to be a big player, not on the pitch, but within the criminal organisation conducting fixes. Gervasoni confessed "I fixed a dozen games that I played in, and then I tried to fix others that I wasn't involved in. And it was easier to corrupt the Italians than it was the foreigners.” The former midfielder made his reasons clear. "I did it for the money. I can't say how much I earned. I was already earning around 10-15,000 euros a month as a footballer. I made a mistake but this allowed me to earn so much money in such a short space of time." Gervasoni is now serving a seven year ban from all football activities.
Although the case originally started back in 2010, only now are proceedings coming to a legal conclusion. In total, 104 people including Italy CT, Antonio Conte, will appear in court as part of the Ultima Scommesse investigation. The preliminary hearing will be on February 18, 2016, in Cremona under the supervision of Judge Pierpaolo Beluzzi. In all, 60 matches are being investigated, although there were originally 200 prior to the prosecution team’s scrupulous analysis of each case. The more serious charges are faced by the likes of Stefano Mauri, Giuseppe Signori, Carlo Gervasoni, Cristiano Doni and Luigi Sartor. Custodial sentences a real possibility.
Time will tell if this investigation has completely uncovered all the sinister activities associated with Calcio and organised crime. An indelible stain has been left on Calcio after the discovery of such deep rooted problems, particularly in the lower leagues where the players are not so affluent and more susceptible to bribes. We will have to see what Judge Pierpaolo decides and hope once more for a more transparent and honest game.
Follow Mark Neale on Twitter: @neale_mark