Italy tribunal opens match-fixing trial
ROME, June 29 (Reuters) Italy's biggest-ever sports trial opened today before a panel of judges trying four leading soccer clubs on match-fixing charges which could force them out of the nation's top league and European competition.
Tribunal president Cesare Ruperto opened the trial with a roll call of the accused who stood up as their names were read inside a spartan, low-ceilinged room in Rome's Olympic Stadium.
The trial, which was beamed by closed circuit television to media gathered in a nearby room, quickly moved to procedural issues that dominated the morning.
Three defence lawyers, passing a microphone as they raised points of order, asked that the trial be postponed to give the defence more time to prepare their cases. The judges then called a recess to consider the request.
The panel of five retired judges and one representative from Italy's referees association is considering charges against Serie A champions Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, as well as 26 senior officials, referees and linesmen.
In a reminder that it is a sports tribunal, the judges wore suits instead of the robes that are worn in criminal trials.
Among the accused in the ''Clean Feet'' scandal, AC Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani sat in the front row near Franco Carraro, former president of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC).
Referee Massimo De Santis, who was pulled from the World Cup after the scandal erupted in May, was in the third row.
Former Juventus general manager Luciano Luciano Moggi, at the centre of the scandal, was not present. He has said he does not need to answer to the tribunal because he has quit Juventus.
'WINNING SQUAD' The accused are charged with sporting fraud and unfair conduct, which could lead to the teams being relegated and the individuals being either suspended or banned from football.
Juventus runs the greatest risk of being dropped from Italy's top league, and the club appeared resigned to playing a year outside Serie A before competing again for the championship which it has won the past two years.
''We have worked to get things back to normal and prepare a team that in two years will return to being a winning squad,'' Juventus CEO Carlo Sant'Albano said in an interview published in La Repubblica newspaper.
Lawyers representing five Serie B teams that hope to be promoted if the accused squads are relegated turned up. But defence lawyers for the Serie A squads asked the court to bar their counterparts representing Bologna, Lecce, Treviso, Brescia and Messina.
The trial will run for the duration of the World Cup in Germany and vie for Italians' attention with the progress of the national team, who have 13 players from the four accused clubs. Italy face Ukraine on Friday in the quarter-finals.
Soccer-mad Italy has been gripped by the scandal since it erupted last month with the publication of intercepted telephone conversations showing Moggi discussing refereeing appointments with senior FIGC officials during the 2004-05 season.
FIGC, which appointed the tribunal, has said it will rule by July 9, the date of the World Cup final, and that appeals would be heard by July 20.
That would give FIGC time before a deadline of July 27 to submit the names of teams to compete in next season's Champions League and UEFA Cup competitions.
If they were relegated, Juventus, Milan and Fiorentina would miss the Champions League and Lazio the UEFA Cup. If they were only docked points, they would still be able to compete.
The football trial is not a criminal proceeding but prosecutors in four cities have launched investigations which could lead to criminal charges.
REUTERS PM BD1506