On Thursday, 12 October, the day was due to be one of standard football practice at the Coverciano (Florence) training camp, the official center of the Italian national team. La Nazionale were preparing their next two qualifying matches for the upcoming European Championship, to be held in Germany from June to July 2024, against England and its ex-colony, Malta. As Gli Azzurri was occupied doing drills on one of the grass or synthetic turf fields, running on the treadmill in the gym, regenerating in the jacuzzi or massage room, respiring in the sauna, or attending a lecture about tactics by coach Luciano Spalletti in one of the halls, little did they know the police was right around the corner and would soon show up at the ground.
Around 19.00, two Turinese prosecutors entered the gates of Coverciano and approached the Roman Nicolò Zaniolo (24) and the man from Brescia, Tonali. Both players were solely in Italy for the international break, as they currently play club football in England, at Aston Villa and Newcastle United, respectively. The latter, a physical center midfielder, was one of the big names of last summer’s transfer window, moving from Milan to Newcastle for £ 60 million.
The agents told Tonali and Zaniolo that they were in the mud for having allegedly bet on football. It has been illegal for footballers to do so in Italy since the autumn of 2005. Tonali and Zaniolo were accompanied to a secret room by Italy chief delegate Gianluigi Buffon, which is ironic because, in 2006, the goalkeeping legend himself was caught up in the midst of Calciopoli, the greatest legal scandal in Italian football history. Like Tonali and Zaniolo, Buffon has been accused of betting on football – even on his own team. Although he was later proved innocent, never having bet post-2005, Buffon’s reputation as a gambler did not disappear. Naturally, following the latest news, Italian parodies have started depicting Tonali and Zaniolo as match-fixers, too. Nonetheless, unlike Buffon and Zaniolo, as it stands, Tonali is guilty and has been sanctioned by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC): he will serve a ten-month ban from football. This means that Italy will have to do without one of its key players in Euro 2024.
In the room, the policemen interrogated Tonali and Zaniolo for approximately one hour and confiscated their smart devices. After the police left the room, Spalletti and the FIGC decided to send the two home. Later in the evening, the FIGC released a statement: ‘The Federation has allowed the return of the players [Tonali and Zaniolo], also for their own benefit, to their respective clubs.’
Tonali and Zaniolo are not alone, at least in Italy. A day earlier, fellow compatriot Nicolò Fagioli (22) had been put under investigation for similar reasons. Though not called up in Spalletti’s squad this time around, the Juventus number twenty-one has previously played for Italy. Fagioli has been charged with a year-long ban from football. However, it was agreed for the prohibition to be reduced to seven months, provided that Fagioli spends the remaining five doing community service. Consequently, in theory, Fagioli is available for Euro 2024. Having Fagioli at his disposal for the competition would come in handy for Spalletti, especially given that Fagioli is perfect to fill in Tonali’s void as they play in the same position (center midfield). Nevertheless, a call-up seems unlikely; as sporting daily giant La Gazzetta dello Sport stated, ‘the FIGC wants to deliver a strong message…the objective, indeed, is to show everybody that betting has no place in the current footballing world’. The same newspaper has comically dubbed the scandal Scommessopoli (literally ‘Betville’), a blatant derivative of Calciopoli (‘Footballville’).
Historically, Italian football is as bipolar as can be. In 2006, Calciopoli broke out in May, and in July, Italy won the World Cup. Most recently, the four-time World Cup champions failed to qualify for back-to-back World Cups (2018, 2022) and somehow won an Euro in between (2020*)! At this point, it would not come as too much of a surprise if Italy ends up victorious next year in Germany again – or, on the other hand, not even qualifying.
*due to COVID-19, Euro 2020 was played in 2021.
Cover Image Caption: Sandro Tonali (23) has proven to be a sensitive man. In June, the cameras spotted him crying over Zlatan Ibrahimović’s adieu to football.