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  • A Letter from a True Soccer Fan
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    As Italy marches to the World Cup amid the shame of one of the biggest sports scandals in history, this fan writes to Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon begging him to take action.

    Dear Gigi Buffon,

    You are the best goalkeeper in the world. All the experts say so. Playing for Juventus and the Italian national team, you scored fans and money, more than any other goalkeeper. You kept even the best players from scoring against you. But maybe that wasn't enough. By now, all of your fans are wondering whether the allegation that you illegally bet on Serie A matches last season is true. You haven't been charged with anything, but investigators say you might have wagered as much as 50,000 euro on a single match.

    These allegations aren't even the worst part. This possible betrayal comes on the brink of the 2006 World Cup, when for once Italy seemed to have a chance to win the whole thing with you in its net. Amid the controversy, Italian Coach Marcello Lippi put you on the World Cup team. Your spot is hardly safe now. If anyone finds damning evidence, you are through - not just for the world's most important sports competition but perhaps for good. Can you imagine never playing again?

    You must be thinking about the fact that you may have to dump us all - every last fan - and give up soccer forever. It has to have crossed your mind. And not just yours. Even Lippi has been implicated in this growing scandal that has prosecutors in Naples, Rome, Parma, and Turin investigating everything from match fixing to illegal betting. Juventus, Lazio, AC Milan and Fiorentina - some of the finest soccer clubs in the world - are under the gun to prove their innocence.

    Juventus - the sacred cow of Italy - started it all with those wiretapped conversations between Juve General Director Luciano Moggi and league officials who determined the referees for your matches. The transcripts make it seem like Moggi was forcing, persuading, perhaps even bribing these officials to pick refs who gave preferential treatment to your team. Gianluca Paparesta, one of Italy's most respected referees, alleges that he was once locked up after you lost a match to Reggina in 2004. That means Moggi and company, all of whom resigned in the wake of this scandal, could be slapped with kidnapping charges, too. Kidnapping? Can you believe that? How could sport - Italy's national pastime no less - come to this?

    Everyday, the list of names involved in this deceit gets longer - and my broken heart shatters more. I see the framed photos I have of you on my wall. They once gave me pleasure. For now - and unless you clear your name - they mock me. They undermine every beautiful memory we shared - from the Champions League match against Barcelona in 2003, which I watched in a bar in Italy to the SuperCoppa versus Milan at Giants Stadium, where I met you face to face.

    I'll never forget it. I grabbed my press credentials and turned around only to run right into you. You said, "Scusa," after knocking me down. And I replied, "Grazie." I thanked you because you were just so darn cute - the last one off the tour bus, hustling to the locker room.

    Standing behind your net, I snapped photos for another Italian American publication - and you quickly realized that I spoke your language. You were among the team leaders on the field. When the game went to penalty kicks, your superstition came out. You asked us reporters to let you know when your teammates were done taking their shots because you wouldn't dare look. It was bad luck. We told you - and you even made a save. It was extraordinary because you seemed to be using math to determine the angle that the ball would come to you. I was more than impressed. I was smitten. I followed you with my lens until you went into the locker room celebrating with your teammates. And the Italian Americans in the stadium chanted your name. They couldn't get enough of you. Was it all for show? Were those matches fixed? Was my dream-come-true day really just a dream?

    Now, Gli Azzurri - the Italian national team - is heading into Duisburg in West Germany, its headquarters for the World Cup tournament. The entire world is anticipating Italy's matches, but now it is not for the same reasons as before. We'll be watching to see if the Italian players show signs of guilt. So will the refs; there is no way any referee will give Italy's men the benefit of the doubt. Not anymore. Perhaps, never again.

    The blue jerseys that the team wears are supposed to be for courage. I beg you and your teammates to rip off that blue if you are in any way guilty. And if you are not, please, please end this international nightmare. Tell us you are innocent - and not through your lawyers. Stand before us and in your own words show us you are innocent. If you are not - for the sake of your fans, for me - ask for forgiveness and penance. That way, maybe, we won't lose soccer forever.

    Yours truly,
    Francesca Di Meglio

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