Top Italian clubs reject match-fixing claims
ROME, July 5 (Reuters) Top Italian soccer clubs today denied match-fixing charges, with the owner of Fiorentina saying his club were victims of the scandal that has cast a shadow over Italy's march to the World Cup final.
Juventus -- Italy's most successful club now threatened with relegation to the third division -- AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina took turns to reject charges of sporting fraud at a sporting tribunal in Rome's Olympic Stadium.
Six-times European champions Milan and former Italian champions Lazio and Fiorentina risk being sent to the second division, a humbling prospect for the clubs who employ some of the world's biggest soccer names.
The four accused clubs supplied most of the Italy players who beat Germany in a dramatic World Cup semi-final yesterday.
The case revolves around claims by sporting prosecutors that the clubs and 26 individuals, including officials from the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), conspired to rig matches, charges denied by the clubs and the individuals.
Fiorentina owner Diego Della Valle, the founder of luxury leather group Tods, said he had voiced concerns about hostile referees to former FIGC official Paolo Bergamo, who oversaw the draw to select referees in the 2004-05 season.
That was when the club narrowly avoided relegation.
''When we said we were worried about hostile referees, Bergamo told us that mistakes happened, and that he could put us into the part of the draw that got the best referees to avoid further mistakes,'' Della Valle told the tribunal.
But he denied Fiorentina had done anything wrong.
''We thought that maybe the referees' errors were down to psychological pressures. We didn't know there was a system,'' he said. ''Fiorentina were victims of this system.'' Della Valle risks five years suspension from involvement in soccer, as requested by the prosecutor in the case who also wants Juventus to be stripped of their last two Italian titles.
The sports tribunal will not hand out penal sentences, but a separate magistrates' investigation in Naples has yet to decide whether to press criminal charges against some of the accused.
STOOD DOWN Luigi Chiappero, a lawyer for Antonio Giraudo who stood down as chief executive of Juventus when the scandal broke, said his client had contacted two Italian soccer officials including Bergamo but that was very different from contacting a referee.
''As long as it remains only a request for the best possible referee, and the draw is still independent, there is no sporting fraud,'' he said.
The scandal erupted in early May with the publication of intercepted telephone conversations between former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi and senior FIGC officials, discussing refereeing appointments during the 2004-05 season.
The tribunal has said it aims to deliver its verdicts on July 10, the day after the World Cup final in Berlin when Italy will face either France or Portugal.
Any appeals must be cleared up by July 27, a deadline set by European soccer's ruling body for the list of teams for next season's lucrative Champions League and UEFA Cup competitions.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi on Wednesday said the scandal had helped the national team to bond.
''Certainly, initially, all the confusion that came out two or three months ago created a desire and a determination to respond and show that Italian football is effective, real and strong on a technical and moral level,'' he said. ''It helped to create a tight group.'' But the outlook for the players after the World Cup remains uncertain. Fabio Capello, who quit as Juventus manager this week, was named as manager of Real Madrid today. Italian media speculated about possible transfer moves for players from the clubs involved in the scandal, if they are relegated.
REUTERS SHB KP2253