Scandals abound in run-up to World Cup

BOSTON — While we eagerly await the glories of the 2010 World Cup, we might recall that the 2006 version ended on a particularly sour note. Zinedine Zidane, the French captain and the greatest player of his generation, ended his career being ejected for head-butting an Italian defender who had spit out crude insults about Zidane’s family.

If Italy was the least bothered by that taint on its championship — Zidane’s absence seemed to sink France in the waning moments of that final — there was no evidence of any chagrin. Rather it was viewed as a rebirth for Italy following a massive match-fixing scandal that had engulfed Italian football, a joyous signal that Italian football had emerged from the miasma of corruption and was once again transcendent.

But in the ensuing years, Italian football has slipped from its pre-eminent perch in Europe, lagging behind Spain and England and likely soon France and Germany. There are many explanations but no doubting the decline. Italy’s two most prominent and storied teams, Juventus and A.C. Milan, were engulfed in that scandal and have emerged as second-tier European teams that right now are not even contending at the top of Serie A. (Juventus is actually in seventh place, Milan a distant third.)

Still, on the eve of the 2010 World Cup, all that might seem like ancient history. But in a case of wretched timing, the Italian scandal has reared up again with tentacles that threaten to ensnare other teams that skated the first time. And that could include Italian’s post-scandal soccer giant, Inter Milan, a team bidding for its fifth consecutive Serie A championship and the last Italian team standing in the Champions League.

Yet this bout of Italian deja vu is not even the worst the sport is now enduring in the run-up to the World Cup. France already bears the burden of having cheated its way to South Africa after one of its most illustrious players used a deliberate handball to score the decisive goal, a move somehow overlooked by only the referee. Now its national team is embroiled in a seamy scandal that links prominent players, including its offensive sparkplug Franck Ribery, to child prostitution.

These shameful events — the match-fixing scandal in Italy, the prostitution scandal in France — have made the contretemps that rocked the English team in recent months seem like a rather quaint soap opera. While sleeping with a teammate’s girlfriend cost John Terry the captaincy of England and cost England a decent back-liner after Wayne Bridge refused to play alongside Terry, it is, after all, not a criminal matter, only pathetic and slimy (though not quite at the Tiger Woods level).

The French press is limited by strict privacy laws in what it can report about the child prostitution investigation or the names of players involved. But the British press faces no such constraints and has reported, with characteristic glee, that the players frequented a club/brothel on the Champs Elysees where 20 women were arrested in a raid last week. While prostitution is legal in France, the investigation centers on sex with underage girls, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.

While lawyers for the players insisted that the players are only witnesses in the case, the Mail Online reported that Ribery, who is married with two young children, has admitted sleeping a number of times last year with a teenage prostitute, a French Moroccan woman who is now 18, though he denies knowing she was underage. Along with Ribery, who is playing for Bayern Munich in the Champions League semis this week and poised to sign a lucrative, new contract after this season, the Mail named three other French stars, including Sidney Govou who is playing for Lyon against Bayern Munich.

The Italian scandal was resurrected now because a former Juventus director is on trial in the original matter. And his defense appears to be that all the top teams were indulging in secret discussions to arrange sympathetic referees for their matches. As a result of the scandal, Juventus was stripped of two Italian titles and demoted to Serie B for a season, while four other teams began the following season with point deductions. But Italian media is now printing transcripts of calls between other teams and those responsible for the assignment of officials that suggest the corruption may have been even more widespread than previously acknowledged.

The Italian national team has already demonstrated the ability to ignore the most scandalous backdrop and focus on its World Cup efforts. But the mess that is Italian soccer has now endured for five years and appears to have exacted a toll on Italian players. France may have an even harder time in South Africa if Ribery and others are forced off the team because of misconduct, criminal or otherwise. It’s hard to imagine that the scandal won’t have on-field consequences. Despite the country’s tolerance for wayward sexual behavior by its presidents and star athletes, child prostitution is far too serious and shameful to be ignored, even on behalf of Les Bleus.

FIFA, international soccer’s less-than-august governing body, already had plenty of worries about potential problems — most notably South Africa’s high crime rate — ruining the quadrennial celebration. But with three of soccer’s most celebrated national teams heading to South Africa in the wake or the scandals that run the gamut of sleaze, one wonders if a genuine celebration is any longer appropriate or even possible.