Time for half-measures is over for Italian soccer

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Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci controls the ball during the Italian Serie A football match between Lazio and Juventus at the Olympic stadium in Rome on November 26, 2011. Bonucci is currently being invested in Italy’s Calcioscommesse scandal and faces a three-and-a-half season ban from Italian soccer. (Photo credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

The early winner for “story I should have been tracking better for you”: Calcioscommesse. Without a doubt. This is my first post on the latest cheating scandal in Italy, one which is about to land long suspensions for multiple members of last year’s champions. Juventus head coach Antonio Conte had been attempting to negotiate a plea bargain that will mitigate his sentence for failing to report match-fixing during his tenure at Siena. Simone Pepe’s looking at a year off for his involvement while at Udinese, and defender Leonardo Bonucci could miss over three years for his part at Bari. Seems like something I could have brought up earlier.

Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about here, because it defines the context of those potential sentences. These three, along with many others throughout Italian soccer (or no longer in Italian soccer, like Marco Di Vaio), helped undermine the basic purpose of the competition. League soccer, at its core, depends on being able to wage credible matches where two teams are assumed to be competing in good faith. Once that assumption is gone, the matches are no more than cloaked friendlies. Put enough of those into a season, and your competition is useless, particularly if you can’t seem to control when the matches are real and when they’re fake.

(MORE: Marco Di Vaio in Italy dealing with match-fixing probe.)

Match-fixing is such a terrible euphemism for this compromise, and not because it’s an inaccurate description. The term does a good job of describing the control influenced on matches which may only be fixed at its edges (manipulating a margin of victory). But even the tacit acknowledgement of that control distracts from the venom we should have for this problem. These are acts that bloody the lips of everybody who devotes their time, money, and spirit to Calcio. They act like an infection persistent in the league’s blood, one which can cripple or kill unless treated brutally, without compromise.

A fine, suspension, demotion may work, but if it doesn’t, the infection will come back more resilient than before, humiliating those who tried to treat it. It will be immune to the old solutions, ready to withstand them, knowing its capable of returning. And so it is that just as Italy was recovering from Calciopoli – from having its most decorated team sent does to Serie B (among other punishments) – another attack of a corrupt, seemingly irreparable culture insults those of us who bought into Serie A’s recovery.

If that sounds like I’m taking this story personally, good. I am. Over the last two years, as Italy’s place in the European pecking order has been debated and denigrated (with the fourth of their Champions League spots handed to Germany), I’ve continued to invest in the league. I’d write pieces defending the league’s quality, purporting a resurgence people were missing for having written the league off. Now, Calcioscommesse makes me the fool, if an insignificant one. Having defended a league I didn’t know was still rigged, I feel like an idiot.

Serie A still gave me a lot of highlights in 2011-12. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani were two of my favorite players. I loved watching Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo’s contributions for Juventus. When Inter surged under Andrea Stramaccioni, I actually became nostalgic for the Nerazzurri’s string of five straight titles. Not that any of that matters, now.

Italy’s league is inherently compromised. I see that, now. I see that any time I devote to it going forward risks being wasted. Yes, I know I won’t be able to resist watching. There is too much talent, history there not to. But I won’t meaningfully invest until something meaningfully changes. I won’t ignore that illness, let it sit on my bones until I have no choice but to let it ravage my fandom.

When, here in the States, Major League Baseball had this problem, they brought in somebody to amputate. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was hired to clean up a game that had lost credibility. As baseball’s first commissioner, he demanded absolute power over the game. He used it brutally.

In dealing with a scandal that could have forever scared the sport, Landis instated a no tolerance policy that would cost the American League two of its biggest stars. After the 1919 Chicago White Sox threw the World Series, eight players were banned for life. The influence of gamblers had become so pervasive, Landis needed to make a few examples. Stars like Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte were never allowed to play again. Though the unprecedented move sparked a 100-year debate as to the unlikely innocence of Shoeless Joe, it also solved baseball’s credibility problem.

Italy has a credibility problem. No club, player, executive, or agent can be bigger than the league. Not a league-winning coach. Not a 28-time champion club. Nobody. With another debilitating scandal having cropped up five years after what should have been a “never again” incident, Italy’s lost the benefit of the doubt. It’s not a clean league, we should assume. Italy must act to prove itself to its fans.

This morning on social media, some very smart people were questioning the justice of Bonucci’s potential ban. I question the justice of Pepe’s. I question the justice of Conte’s. I question whether Marco Di Vaio will have to pay for his part in the scandal.

At this point, if a player is shown to be connected with this type of cheating, he should be banned for life. The perception the league may not be handling the affair with the necessary seriousness – that it is not willing to do whatever it takes to clean up the game – has the potential to be as damaging as the match-fixing itself. Having handed out suspensions, demoted teams, and stripped titles in the previous scandal, Italy knows what doesn’t solve the problem.

There’s only so much time you can sit and watch something rot before you know the half-measures aren’t working. At some point the problem becomes so pervasive, carries such a threat to your future health, that only the most aggressive measures will give you piece of mind. For Italy, it’s time to start amputating anything that may compromise their game, because their game has already been compromised enough.