At the climax of his soccer team’s fiercely contested clash against local rivals Lecce last year, defender Andrea Masiello committed what appeared to be a ghastly error, poking a cross into his own goal instead of hoofing it clear.
Masiello, 27, collapsed dejectedly on the grass after his own-goal sealed a 2-0 defeat for Bari, who were already facing relegation from Italy’s Serie A.
However, the player has now admitted to investigators that he was offered at least 50,000 euros (US$67,000) to turn the ball into the net to ensure Bari lost and help secure Lecce’s survival in Serie A.
Magistrates who arrested Masiello and placed eight of his former Bari teammates under investigation are now studying the team’s final games of last season. They suspect matches thrown by the side may have determined which teams went down and which qualified for Europe.
The investigation is the latest twist in a match-fixing scandal that threatens to throw Italian soccer into disarray.
The Bari players, judge Giovanni Abbattista wrote, “were more or less ‘on the market,’ and not in the footballing sense of the term.”
Treated as idols by fans, they were no more than mercenaries, he said.
Despite its reputation for attractive soccer, Bari could not compete with Serie A’s big guns last year and players reportedly feared the club would not pay their wages as it slipped into the relegation zone.
Magistrates have suggested management at Bari and Lecce were privy to the match-fixing, but Bari sporting director Guido Angelozzi denied any role.
Investigators suspect players of being approached to throw other games by a mysterious Balkan group of gamblers known as “The Gypsies,” who are suspected of paying off players from a number of Italian sides.
In June last year, the Italian government established a match-fixing taskforce as the former Atalanta BC captain and Italy midfielder Cristiano Doni was banned for three-and-a-half-years for match fixing in Serie B, while the former SS Lazio and Italy player Giuseppe Signori was banned for five years and 15 other players were banned for between one and five years.
Masiello’s arrest moves the scandal out of Serie B and places it firmly in Serie A.
In an interview last month with Italy’s La Repubblica, Macedonian Hristiyan Ilievski, the alleged head of The Gypsies, said he had approached Bari players when he heard the team was destined for relegation.
Masiello, he said, “seemed to have clear ideas about what he wanted and what he had to do.”
Ilievski said that in Bari, the local mafia was already involved in match fixing.
Bari players have said they were under pressure from the heads of “ultra” supporters’ groups to throw games at the end of the season to assist betting scams.