Marek Zakrzewski/European Pressphoto Agency
It should come as no surprise that the country that gave the world Galileo and Roman numerals remains excellent at math. Even before the final whistle had blown on Italy’s 1-1 tie against Croatia at Euro 2012 on Thursday, the sportswriters in the stands and the tifosi at home had crunched the numbers:
Italy’s fate, after two ties, was no longer in its hands. Spain and Croatia, with four points in the group to Italy’s two and facing each other in the final group match, were in position to squeeze the Italians out with the right result.
And since Italy also gave us Machiavelli and Calciopoli, too, the concept of the right result was soon what everyone was talking about. By the tiebreaking rules of the tournament, a high-scoring draw between Spain and Croatia — say, 2-2 or 3-3 — would assure both teams would advance to the quarterfinals even if Italy, as expected, beats Ireland. (All the Ireland results would be tossed from consideration, and the deciding tiebreaker in this case would be total goals scored in the games involving the other three teams.) Soccer has a long history of teams needing the right result getting it: Argentina in 1978. Germany and Austria in 1982. Juventus, well, a lot.
Because of that history, the Spanish and the Croats have been subjected to several days of questions — many of them translated from the original Italian — about whether they would play to the result that suited both their purposes. Reporters have probed. Pundits have pontificated. And one reporter went further; according to Sid Lowe of The Guardian and also the Spanish newspaper AS, the Gazzetta dello Sport correspondent Filippo Ricci used a visit to Spain’s training site to leave a message on a meeting room message board: “Queridos amigos de España. Ante Croacia NO 2-2 por favor.”
It was unclear whether the Spanish players had seen the message — “Spanish friends, against Croatia no 2-2 please” — but they had certainly heard the talk.
“A 2-2 could happen,” Spain defender Raul Albiol said. “Just as a 1-0 or a 0-1 could happen, but there is no pact, no fix, nothing like that. That’s just stupid.”
Said striker Fernando Torres: “There’s no point in even talking about it. It’s all speculation. Speaking about it puts the very reason for why we are here in doubt. That’s not what football is about.”
Croatia’s coach, Slaven Bilic, said his message to Italians everywhere was simple: trust both teams to do the right thing. “We are people of sport, rich in religious values,” he said. “We do not do these things.”
(It’s all pretty rich, really, this Italian concern about arranged outcomes, since Italy had to drop at least one player on the eve of the tournament because he was being investigated as part of the country’s latest match-fixing scandal.)
Italy Coach Cesare Prandelli helpfully pointed out that none of the intrigue would matter if his team slipped up and failed to beat Ireland on Monday. Those teams will meet in Poznan while Spain and Croatia simultaneously tangle (or will it be tango?) in Gdansk.
“If we start thinking about a fix,” Prandelli said, “we’ve got problems.”
He added: “We need only think of our result. It is inconceivable to think that a team like Spain, that has based its entire image on the game and on the show, can program the result of a game.”
He and his countrymen should know. They are, of course, no strangers to match fixing, either as perpetrator or victim. As Yahoo’s Martin Rogers wrote:
Making things worse for Italy and its nervous supporters is that they have been in this position before. At Euro 2004, a 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark knocked Italy out of the competition amid wide-scale accusations that the game had been fixed.
“Having been burned once before, we are entitled to be fearful,” said an editorial in the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni was in charge of Italy back in 2004 and admitted the Italians were right to be concerned of a stage-managed outcome between Spain and Croatia.
“Italy has to worry about their game, that has to be their focus,” Trapattoni told a press conference. “I am the Ireland manager now and that has to be my priority, but you are right to ask these questions and it is important that the people at UEFA keep a close eye on it.”