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Scandals abound in run-up to World Cup

Will child prostitution in France and match-fixing in Italy have repercussions on the field?

Bayern Munich's French midfielder Franck Ribery celebrates scoring during the UEFA Champions League 1st leg quarterfinal match FC Bayern Munich vs Manchester United at the Allianz Arena in Munich on March 30, 2010. (Oliver Lang/AFP/Getty Images)

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).