Italy will take on the USA at Genoa’s Stadio Luigi Ferraris tomorrow, though that is a fact you might have missed had you wandered into Cesare Prandelli’s pre-match press conference on Monday. The manager of the Azzurri was not exactly inundated with questions about how these opponents might line up, his plans for defending Clint Dempsey, or the weaknesses in Tim Howard’s game.
Instead, he was asked about a player who won’t even be involved: Mario Balotelli. Specifically, reporters wanted to know how it was that the Manchester City forward should be excluded under Prandelli’s much-discussed code of conduct, yet Gigi Buffon should still be retained as captain. In the wake of comments made by the Juventus goalkeeper after his team’s draw with Milan, there were those who felt Buffon should not be involved at all.
It is a story which began midway through the first-half at San Siro on Saturday night when, with his team trailing 1-0, Buffon clawed a Sulley Muntari header out from the Juventus goal without the linesman Roberto Romagnoli realising that the ball had crossed the line. “I will be honest in saying that if I had realised [that the ball was in], I would not have given the referee a hand,” said Buffon at full-time. “But I can confirm that at the time I didn’t know.”
His words divided the nation. On the one side were those who admired the goalkeeper’s candour, noting with a shrug that most other players would have felt the same. On the other were those who argued the Italy captain should be setting a better example, not least for young fans.
The majority of Buffon’s peers from within the sport seemed to fall into the former camp. Milan’s own player Thiago Silva acknowledged that: “In Buffon’s place I would have done the same”, while the Lecce manager Serse Cosmi claimed “99% of people would have done what he did, myself included”.
Even Daniele De Rossi—who successfully convinced a referee to disallow one of his own goals in a game against Messina in 2009 after confessing he had handled the ball—said that this was a different case. “Anyone who scores with a hand will know they’ve done it,” he said. “Whereas someone in Buffon’s position can never be certain that a goal was a goal. If I had scored and thought I might be offside, I wouldn’t go to the referee to tell him.”
But the head of the Italian Referees’ Association, Marcello Nicchi, disagreed, noting how much harder the job became for his officials when players were already doing so much to deceive them. Columnists noted gravely that such remarks only served to further tarnish the reputation of Italian football, already dragged through the mud in recent years by Calciopoli and the ongoing investigations into betting rings alleged to have fixed matches in Italy’s top divisions.
Prandelli had initially defended the player by attributing Buffon’s comments to the adrenaline generated while playing in such a big match, but when Buffon arrived at Italy’s training base he was unrepentant. “I will repeat what I said,” he told reporters. “Even if I had known [the ball was in] I would certainly not have sunk my own team. If I said any different then I would always have to take responsibility for acting in a way consistent with that, maybe even in a World Cup final.”
This time he had cut to the core of the matter. Would the same moralists who criticised him now have been so strident if his actions had been on behalf of the national cause, instead of a club which has long been Italy’s best supported club nationally, but typically also among the most hated by rival supporters?
The answer in some cases might be yes, of course, but not in many others. Football fans are a fickle bunch. Few in Uruguay denounced Luis Suárez for denying Ghana a goal with his hand, just as many Liverpool supporters were quick to defend the player from accusations of racial abuse even after the FA had published a 115-page document explaining the justification for his eight-game ban. Examples of fans rallying behind a wrongdoer could be found at almost any club or national team.
If fans are so easily swayed by their allegiances, then why should we expect anything different from the footballers themselves – people whose livelihoods depend on success? “Football is a game for the sly,” said the former Atalanta and Juventus defender Paolo Montero in one infamous interview during his time in Italy. “If to win I have to steal, I will steal. I am honest and I want to always set an example in life. But not on the pitch, where I just want to win.”
At the time Gazzetta dello Sport published reactions to Montero’s comments from a series of other figures within the game. Looking back on those interviews today, the same newspaper describes the answers they received as being mostly banal, but not that from Luigi Di Biagio, then an Inter player. “I think exactly like Montero, and I don’t believe anyone who says the opposite,” he said, before insisting they not publish his words (a request which was honoured at the time, but which has now been deemed to have expired).
Of course there have always been exceptions, like players for whom winning is not everything. The former Juventus defender Gaetano Scirea famously stopped one bad-tempered match against Fiorentina to berate both sides over their conduct, shouting: “Aren’t you ashamed? There are wives and children are watching.”
Just last month, Buffon himself was commended for an act of sportsmanship that would be beyond many players, insisting that Udinese be awarded a corner during their game at the Stadio Friuli after the officials failed to notice that he had got a touch on a shot that went wide. But a corner is one thing, and a goal quite another. In amongst his other comments on Monday he raised the issue of loyalty to his team-mates. Why should he betray them just to make everyone else happy?
Prandelli might not say so explicitly, but Buffon’s message chimes more closely his code of ethics than many assume. The manager has been congratulated on what is often portrayed as a principled stance on player selection – but the truth is that the code is first and foremost another way of helping his team to succeed. Balotelli has been excluded both now and in the past not for misdemeanours off the pitch, but those on it. “I can’t have a player who puts me at risk of going down to ten men,” Prandelli explained on Monday.
The same goes for his stance on De Rossi. Prandelli praised Luis Enrique for dropping the midfielder following his late arrival to a team meeting this week, on the grounds that doing so would set the right example to youngsters – prompting many commentators to observe that he ought to be doing the same with Buffon. But again there is a qualitative difference. Arriving late for training can disrupt a whole team’s preparations. Buffon’s attitude might not match Prandelli’s world view, but it’s hard to see how it could damage his team.
Of course, just because so many within the game—and indeed so many fans—seem happy to argue that the ends always justify the means does not mean that it is a position that we must resign ourselves to. But it’s also misguided to pillory Buffon for being honest.
When the most recent Italian betting scandal broke last summer, the goalkeeper condemned the national rush to judgement. “We are still the Italy of the Piazzale Loreto,” he said – a reference to the Milan square where the body of Benito Mussolini was hung on display, upside down, after he had been killed in 1945, and where previously his party had done the same to dissidents. Now Buffon is at the centre of a show-trial, with many calling for him to be made into an example.
It is not an effective means by which to affect change. Shouting Buffon down may cause him to think twice about speaking so truthfully in future, but that does not mean that his attitude—or the attitudes of many within the game who clearly support his view—will actually be altered. To achieve that will require more thought about how player education can be conducted through clubs, rather than newspaper front pages.
Besides which, it is hard to escape a sense of hypocrisy in the notion that players should be doing more to help officials when their own leaders seem so unwilling to do the same. Across Italy’s top two divisions there were 26 incidents last year where goalline technology might have affected the decision. Similar tools are employed in a number of major sports, and yet football continues to drag its feet. In the end, it is not Buffon’s problem to fix.