Italy tribunal to open match-fixing trial
ROME, June 29 (Reuters) Italy's biggest-ever sports trial opens today before a panel of judges who will try four top soccer clubs on match-fixing charges which could force them out of Serie A and European competition.
The six-strong panel will convene in Rome's Olympic Stadium to consider charges against Serie A champions Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, as well as 26 senior officials, referees and linesmen.
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 tomorrow in the quarter-finals and their players say they are focused on the job in hand rather than the fate of their clubs being decided back in Rome.
When an Argentine reporter asked Alessandro Nesta in Duisburg about the scandal yesterday, the AC Milan defender snapped: ''Is everything fine in your country? I think everyone needs to look after their own house.'' Soccer-mad Italy has been gripped by the scandal since it erupted last month with the publication of intercepted telephone conversations showing former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi discussing refereeing appointments with senior Italian Football Federation officials during the 2004-05 season.
RELEGATION RISK The accused are charged with sporting fraud and unfair conduct, which could lead to the teams being relegated and stripped of their titles and the individuals being either suspended or banned from football.
Juventus, who have won the Serie A title for the last two seasons, are believed to face the greatest risk of relegation.
The Italian Football Federation (FIGC), which appointed the tribunal, has said it will rule by July 9 -- the date of the World Cup final -- and that appeals will be heard by July 20.
That would give the 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 next season, they would still be able to compete.
Cesare Ruperto, the former head of Italy's Constitutinoal Court, will preside over Thursday's session, which is expected to begin at about 9:30 a.m. (0730 GMT). Only members of the tribunal, the accused and their lawyers will be in the room.
The press will follow proceedings in a separate room via closed-circuit television.
The football trial is not a criminal proceeding. But prosecutors in four cities have launched investigations which could lead to criminal charges against some of those accused in the football tribunal.
The Olympic Stadium, a national landmark, usually stages the games of Serie A clubs Lazio and AS Roma.
For Juventus fans, it holds special memories. Ten years ago it was the venue for the most glorious chapter in the team's recent history when it beat Ajax on penalties to win the Champions League.
Now it threatens to become the backdrop to their fall.
REUTERS PM KN0925