With a major international football tournament on the horizon Italy has once again been seized by a huge investigation into match-fixing. As yet it has not reached the magnitude of the 2006 Calciopoli affair, which left a shadow over Italy's World Cup triumph, but after police raided both the quarters of the national team and the home of Antonio Conte, manager of the Italian champions, Juventus, it's set to make as least as big a splash.
The roots of the latest scandal lie in the summer of 2011. After a member of Serie B side Cremonese suffered a serious car crash, tests showed that he and other members of the team had been drugged with sleeping pills. The culprit was one of their own teammates, Marco Paolini, who had been attempting to pay off a mounting series of gambling debts by arranging a series of defeats for his bookies. Cremonese's unexpected winning streak had forced him to take desperate measures.
It soon became clear that Paoloni was merely the tip of the iceberg. Famous names such as Atalanta's captain Cristiano Doni and the legendary Lazio striker Giuseppe Signori were arrested as evidence emerged of others willing to throw games, or procure others to fix results, for at least two international betting syndicates.
Phonetap evidence abounded, but not all of it was conclusive: Paolini would often boast of contacts with big-name players that he didn't have in the hope of earning a payout for a result that had actuallyin fact come about naturally.
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Bari a parallel inquiry investigation was underway that brought some extraordinary admissions. Bari's captain revealed that he had deliberately scored the own goal that saved their neighbours and biggest rivals from relegation. How angry were their fans about this? Not very; Bari's goalkeeper alleged that leaders of the club's own supporters were among those in on the fixes, on one occasion even visiting his house to urge him to lose, so they could make money on it.
Reactions in Italy to all this has have been mixed. While Atalanta's fans responded with fury to the news of Doni's involvement, for many other fansmany others just felt a sense of weary resignation. This is after all a nation still dealing with the fallout of the Calciopoli scandal, which saw Italy's biggest club, Juventus, stripped of two titles and relegated to Serie B. The idea that not everything in the game is strictly above board is hardly a revelation. Fans' expectations are at have been lowered to rock bottom.
And few expect much to change; when Juve were recently crowned champions for the first time since the 2006 scandal, they arbitrarily decided to reclaim the two lost titles. The Italian FA did nothing to stop them.
There is also a sense that this has so far been merely the foothills of the real scandal, with the big names yet to emerge. Monday morning's police actions have certainly obliged on that front. In the headline-grabbing early morning raid on the base of the Italian national side, police searched the room of defender Domenico Criscito and served him with an official notice of investigation.
Elsewhere in Rome, Lazio's captain, Stefano Mauri, was led away in handcuffs, one of 19 people arrested. The tactics are deliberately high profile and carry echoes of the Totonero scandal of 1980, which saw carabinieri waiting pitchside to arrest players as they came off at the final whistle.
The police case may take years to complete, but sporting sanctions will be immediate, for just as in 2006 the Italian FA is fast-tracking its own trials to have penalties in place for the start of the new season, with the first of the hearings beginning this Thursday in Rome.
More arrests will almost certainly follow in the next few weeks, and at least three Serie A clubs – Lazio, Genoa and Siena – may begin next season with significant points deductions. Beyond that though, the broader question is whether the Italian game will ever be truly free of match-fixing. "This investigation could go on eternally, if only we had the manpower," as one investigator put it.
Just six years on from the last major match-fixing scandal, and with a succession of smaller tremors peppering the years before and since, that Italy should found itself again mired in scandal truly suggests that football here is not simply a sport, but rather a vehicle where – regardless of what happens on the field – everyone can win, if they have the right connections. In which case, the loser will always be football.