Dangerous liaisons | The mafia has infiltrated calcio. Now it is looking beyond Italy

  • Italian owner of Spanish third division team arrested in match-fixing probe
  • Juventus under scrutiny by the Italian Football Federation over relationships with alleged mafiosi
  • Football offers rich pickings for organised crime and is largely powerless to keep the mafia out

“Wow! Barça B blasted their way on Saturday afternoon to the biggest win in their history, 12-0 against bottom-of-the-table Eldense. The reserves were already a staggering eight goals to the good at half time and added another four in the second half…”

So gushes the official YouTube site of LaLiga Champions Barcelona, beneath a six-minute highlights clip which has registered nearly 600,000 views.

The match, played on April Fools’ Day, consigned Eldense, the team from Elda, near Alicante, to fourth-division football next season. However, it was neither the relegation nor the record score that made the news.

Within days, Spanish police had arrested the club’s Italian coach, Filippo Vito di Pierro, along with Nobile Capuani, the head of a group of Italian investors who bought a controlling stake in the club in January, as part of an investigation into match fixing. Both men strenuously deny any involvement in such a scheme and Barcelona is not implicated in any way.

VIDEO: Barcelona B’s controversial 12-0 win against Eldense

Eldense forward Cheikh Saad told a local radio station after the game that four of his team mates had been party to throwing the game and that he would be happy to share what he knew with the authorities.

The Spanish league also opened an investigation in response to a request from some of the club’s own board members. League president Javier Tebas told the media: “We’re going to investigate, because there are certain collateral issues with an Italian investment group that bear the hallmarks of the possible involvement of an international betting ring which may be related to match fixing.”

The spotlight is firmly on Eldense’s Italian connection – its new owners, coach and five Italian players. If investigators find proof the match was fixed, the second question will be whether this was part of a wider web of corruption and whether there are links with Italian mafia families.

One Spanish website, El Confidencial, citing sources close to the investigation, claimed that investigators fear the incident may point to a wider infiltration of Spanish football by the ‘Ndrangheta – the Calabrian mafia – designed to make money through illegal Asian sports-betting operations that it controls.

PICTURE: Spanish league president Javier Tebas

Calcio and mafia

The infiltration of Italian football by organised crime families has long been suspected. Indeed, it would be remarkable if football were untouched by something that has enmeshed itself like a virulent strain of bindweed into every stratum of Italian society.

The likelihood of there being structural links between football and organised crime emerged strongly in the wake of the murder of a police inspector, Filippo Raciti, at the Catania v Palermo Serie A derby match in February 2007. Enzo Bianco, the Mayor of Catania and former Minister of the Interior, said in the following days: “The Curva Nord [the part of the ground occupied by Catania’s hardcore fans] is in the hands of the Mafia and an extreme right-wing organisation.”

In 2011, Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, the exposé of the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, wrote: “Italian football has increasingly become a space for money laundering and investment from national and international mafias. The mafia knows that fans will never abandon their team. So the economy around match fixing is infinite.”

PICTURE: Napoli 'ultras'

Rich pickings

There are many things that make football clubs attractive to organised crime: laundering money, securing influence with local politicians, controlling drug trafficking on the terraces, ticket touting (worth up to €30,000 per match for each tout), controlling lucrative soccer schools, running stadium security, and skimming off the top of sponsorship contracts. The terraces have also provided a fertile recruitment ground for new ‘picciotti’ – youngsters prepared to do menial mafia jobs for money.

Probably the most lucrative business, and therefore the most widespread, is the fixing of matches to make money from illegal betting syndicates.

Infiltration can take many forms. In its most complete form, it means buying a club outright, invariably with a reputable businessman fronting the investment. This usually takes place in the lower leagues, below the radar of national news. It can also involve local mafia bosses working closely with the capi ultra – the heads of the organised supporter groups. In some cases, it comes about through intimidation of club officials.

Match fixing invariably involves the bribing of key players, coaching staff and club directors. 

According to a 2010 report by the anti-mafia organisation Libera, those active in the football business are drawn from 30 clans representing all the major Italian crime organisations, including Cosa Nostra (from Sicily), the Camorra (from Campania, the region around Naples), and the Sacra Corona Unita (from the region of Puglia).  

However, several leading anti-mafia figures believe that the ‘Ndrangheta has taken the lead in actively targeting football. These include Renato Cortese, head of the anti-Mafia division of the Catanzaro police force, one of the prime movers in a major 2015 match-fixing investigation known as ‘Dirty Soccer’.

Francesco Forgione, the chairman of the Italian parliament’s Anti-Mafia Commission from 2006 to 2008, has argued that the Calabrian organisation has cemented its grip on the terraces through relationships with the ultras. “The stadium is now one of the principal markets for drugs and it is here that you find the link between the curva and the criminal gang,” he has argued.

The questions now being asked are whether the ‘Ndrangheta infiltration is spreading to the country’s top clubs and whether the model is being exported outside Italy.

PICTURE: Andrea Agnelli

Agnelli under scrutiny

The ‘Ndrangheta has been active in the Piedmont region, whose capital is Turin, since the 1960s, when the organisation began to target the construction industry. Criminal investigations, trials and convictions of ‘Ndrangheta members in Piedmont have been constant since then, but have done little to curb its expansion.

One such investigation, known as 'Alto Piemonte,' began in 2013 and concluded in January with the arrest of 23 men who are due to stand trial this year. It was during the course of this investigation that stories began to appear in the Italian media about a possible link to Italian champion Juventus.

In July 2016 leaked wiretaps appeared to show regular contacts between the club’s head of ticketing, Stefano Merulla, and head of security, Alessandro D’Angelo, as well as Rocco Dominello, considered by police to be part of a powerful ‘Ndrangheta clan originally from Rosarno in Calabria.

One of the shadows now hanging over the club is the extent of club president Andrea Agnelli’s knowledge of these contacts and whether he was aware of Dominello’s alleged criminal links. As the leaks turned into a steady flow of negative headlines, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) opened its own investigation.

In January the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano published what it claimed was an extract from a report by the FIGC’s senior investigator, Giuseppe Pecoraro, into the activities of Agnelli and four other club directors. “With the stated intention of maintaining public order in the sectors of the stadium occupied by ‘ultra’ supporters, (Agnelli) did not prevent directors and employees of Juventus from having constant and long-standing relationships with the so-called ‘ultra groups’, and, by means of the active contribution of exponents of organised crime, authorised the supply to these people of match tickets and season tickets in numbers above allowed levels, free of charge and without the presentation of ID documents, in violation of public safety regulations concerning the sale of tickets to sporting events, and thereby, knowingly, encouraging the phenomenon of ticket touting,” the extract said.

After Raciti’s death, one of the security measures rushed through in a special parliamentary decree was that clubs could have no financial relationship with ultra groups. In spite of this, Italian football insiders say, some kind of accommodation exists between club management and the most powerful ultra groups at every club in the country. 

The allegation that Agnelli met with known members of the ‘Ndrangheta is far more serious and one that he strenuously denies. For the football federation to have written this down and somehow allowed it to be leaked to the press looks highly risky. If the Turin investigators had evidence to this effect, Agnelli would probably be under investigation. He isn’t.

After being summoned to give evidence to the FIGC in March, Agnelli held a press conference at which he said: “I will defend myself, I will defend our colleagues and, above all, I will defend the good name of Juventus, which too often has been besmirched or subjected to bizarre, experimental proceedings run by the sporting justice authorities. I have never met mafia bosses.”

VIDEO: Andrea Agnelli’s press conference

Limited powers

Regardless of the outcome of the Eldense and Juve cases, there is little doubt that organised crime has targeted football and that football is utterly ill-equipped to deal with the threat. Italy’s 20 Serie A clubs earn a total of about €2.5bn ($2.7bn) per year. Italy’s mafia gangs turn over somewhere between €150bn and €200bn per year. It is not a fair fight. Nor does any other country look better placed to confront the phenomenon of criminal infiltration.

One senior football official told SportBusiness International that governing bodies at national, continental and global level were fully aware of the threat posed by organised crime to the integrity of the sport. One confederation, he claimed, was aware of a country in its region that was corrupt from top to bottom, where match fixing was the norm rather than the exception. He said that federations had neither the authority nor the resources to properly tackle the matter, nor should they be expected to do a job that national and transnational police forces are struggling with.

For the moment, the Spanish police continue their investigation into the Eldense match, and the FIGC continues its investigation into ticket-touting at Juventus. It would be premature to draw conclusions from either case.

In various parts of Italy, police and magistrates are still sifting through evidence about the links between football clubs, ultras and organised crime families, as they have been for over a decade, without building a defining, breakthrough case.

What is certain is that Italian mafia organisations, the ‘Ndrangheta in particular, are making rich pickings from football, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, and are looking for fresh opportunities right now in a football club near you.

PICTURE: Ultras clash at a Serie A game

EXTRA: The ‘Ndrangheta – from the toe of Italy to global drug kingpins

The Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta (from Greek word andranghateia, meaning ‘society of men of honour’), is one of the three main mafia organisations in Italy, along with Sicily’s Cosa Nostra and the Camorra from Naples. Its origins are unknown but it is considered to be the most ruthless and violent of the gangs and has built the largest international network, largely through its control of the drug market.

Italian police estimate the ‘Ndrangheta controls between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of Europe’s cocaine market through three principal shipping routes from Latin America and Africa into the port of Gioia Tauro. The extent of the group’s dominance of the drug market was laid bare by a joint investigation between the FBI and Italian police, Operation Columbus, in 2015.

The organisation has established networks in the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Germans were made aware of the presence of the organisation in their midst when six Italians were shot dead in Duisburg in the August 2007 as part of a feud between rival ‘Ndrangheta clans. The group was formally identified as a threat to national security in the US in 2008 by president George W. Bush in an amendment to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

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