Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Italian officials go back to work just so soccer can start

AP , ROME

Premier Silvio Berlusconi and his ministers interrupted their summer vacations Tuesday to approve a decree dealing with a financial scandal staining Italy's soccer world.

The scandal, as well as the failure of a half-dozen clubs to secure contracts for television rights, has hung over these last few weeks as teams prepare for the season's start, the weekend of Aug. 30-31.

"It falls to me even to get soccer in order," Berlusconi was quoted as saying about the specially convened afternoon Cabinet meeting in an interview in the conservative daily Libero.

On the eve of the meeting, Italy's soccer league president declared that the season would start on time despite the scandal, which revolves around guarantees that clubs are sound.

Without such guarantees, implying that clubs will be able to pay salaries of players, personnel as well as other expenses, teams can be blocked from playing in the league.

The decree passed Tuesday would prevent tribunals from deciding whether a team was fit financially.

Recently, such a tribunal in a small city in southern Calabria ruled that Naples' team Napoli should be demoted from the B league to the C level because of doubts raised about its credit soundness by the scandal. The decision sparked protests by fans in the city. Catania was bumped up to take its place.

The decree would keep decisions involving teams in the hands of the courts in the sports world, except for top-level appeals.

Government coalition politicians with constituencies in both cities had been concerned about the tribunal's decision.

Berlusconi, who has been railing for years about Italy's courts because of his own judicial woes stemming from probes of his media empire, didn't miss the occasion to attack the administrative tribunals.

"Now the judges are invading even the [soccer] standings," Libero quoted the premier as saying.

The crossover between administrative justice and sporting tribunal decisions "is creating a lot of confusion," said Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri.

Napoli is one of four clubs, including Serie A team AS Roma, under investigation for questionable financial documentation that allowed the clubs to enroll in the upcoming series.

Prosecutors are looking into whether crimes were committed in the case, in which the clubs obtained credit guarantees to pay debts through a company that didn't have the funds to cover the amounts.

The clubs contend they were victims of fraud.

The failure of several clubs to secure contracts for television rights also loomed as a threat to the start of the season.

Last year, the season's start was stalled for two weeks over TV negotiations.

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