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5/16/06


HUGE SCANDAL ROCKS ITALIAN SOCCER WORLD:


It hasn't received much press here in the United States, but the Italian soccer world is in the midst of a scandal that makes the Barry Bonds steroid imbroglio--or, for that matter, Bill Clinton's Monica Lewinsky affair--seem like kid stuff.  Even if you could care less about Italian soccer, this scandal is a good one interweaving sports gambling, fixed games, bribed, kidnapped and threatened officials, cocaine, insider trading and who knows what else.  Actually, its a huge scandal surrounding by a number of unrelated smaller scandals but that fact does nothing to minimize the significance or the entertainment value for the observer.

Here's the story--Juventus is the top team in Italian Serie A soccer.  If you know anything about European soccer, they're roughly analogous to Manchester United in the English Premier League.  If you don't, they're essentially the biggest sports team in soccer crazy Italy--they'd be on level with the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees here in the United States.  The scandal feeding frenzy began innocuously enough with the revelation that a former Juventus player had been arrested for selling cocaine, and had implicated another former player as a cokehead.  An athlete snorting or even selling coke is a minor story at best, and the only reason it got any media play at all was the involvement of South African supermodels and transsexual prostitutes. 

Then the sports betting scandal broke when Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Bluffton presented himself to Italian magistrates for questioning.  Though the brief AP mention of this story in the US press has tried to tie together the betting and the game fixing (which we'll get to in a moment) but even this wasn't much of a big deal and one thing had nothing to do with the other.  According to reports, Bluffton placed online bets on tennis, horse racing and non-Italian soccer games.  Prior to 2005, that wasn't prohibited by the Italian sports regulators but since then all betting on sports by pro soccer players has been prohibited.  This appears to be a case of a guy not paying enough attention to the rules and making an honest mistake.

Finally, the big scandal blew up and its a doozy.  Long story short, Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi (who resigned on Sunday in the wake of these charges) is accused of running his team and essentially the entire Italian Serie A league like Tony Soprano runs the waste management business in Northern New Jersey.  Moggi--also known by the nickname 'Lucky Luciano'--is accused to exerting influence over referees ranging from bribes to threats of physical violence.  He allegedly had a system where referees would intentionally suspend opposing teams best players (by issuing yellow or red cards for rule infractions) the week before they played Juventus.  To draw a parallel to American sports, this would be like George Steinbrenner controlling umpire assignments and exerting influence on them to get the Red Sox's best players suspended before a big series. 

What's really mind boggling is that the effort to fix games wasn't a low level scam for betting purposes but was a systematic and ongoing racket designed to keep Juventus at the top of the league standings.  There's really too many subplots to recount here, but one of the best involves insider trading.  Juventus is a publicly traded company and Italian securities officials are investigating if team insiders unloaded shares before the nastier parts of the scandal went public.  Worst case scenario for Juventus is that they could be found guilty of "sporting fraud" and demoted to the lower level "B League"--akin to sending the New York Yankees down to AAA ball for a violation.  This demotion would be economically devastating for Juventus--projections I've seen figure they could lose up to 200 million lira in sponsorships, TV deals and endorsements and that a resulting selloff in their stock could result in the loss of up to 70% of their market value (the stock value was down over 13% on Monday).  They'd still be on the hook for roughly 170 million lira worth of player contracts, so it would clearly be a serious financial mess.

Even if you have no interest in European soccer, this scandal is worth following.  Just type "Juventus" into the Google News search to get the latest information.

WHATS UP WITH THE CHICAGO CUBS?

After starting the season with a winning record in the first couple of weeks, the bottom has fallen out for the Chicago Cubs and they've gone 6-14 since then.  They've scored more than three runs only once in their L13 games, which clearly illustrates the big problem--the Cubs offense is easy pickins' with Derek Lee out of the lineup.  There's some hope on the horizon, at least in the pitching rotation as Kerry Wood has done well in his minor league rehab starts and should be back in the lineup by the end of the week.  According to my baseball sources, Mark Prior is about a week behind Wood so within the next two weeks their starting rotation should be intact once again.  That'll give them an emotional boost and should help them keep their opponents from scoring so much, but unfortunately there's no offensive help on the horizon until Lee gets back in the lineup which might not be until late June.

The return of their two big pitchers could influence public perception that the Cubs are all of a sudden a "play on".  That might result in better prices to go against them, at least in the near term.  It may also be a good time to look for spots to play the Cubs UNDER.  Despite their offensive woes, the Cubs are right around dead even for the season in their totals performance with 17 OV, 16 UN and 4 push.  The problem is that they've not been able to keep their opponents from scoring, with their team ERA near the bottom of the NL rankings.  That'll almost have to get better once Wood and Prior return.  I don't see the Cubs becoming a team that I'd be interest to play on unless they manage to stay in contention until Derek Lee returns.  If they're not out of it at that point, they might be poised to go on a tear at that time assuming they can keep their rotation healthy and productive.

STANLEY CUP FUTURES:


At this writing there's 5 NHL teams still playing for the Stanley Cup.  I still like Carolina to win the whole thing, but at +165 they're not much of a value.  They should be able to get past Buffalo--the 'Canes have the same sort of balance between offense and defense as the Sabres and have been getting stellar goaltending from Cam Ward.  Out west, I still like the Edmonton Oilers who have appeared to have finally solved San Jose winning three straight and have gotten a handle on Sharks goalie Veska Toscala, scoring 12 goals in the L2 games against him (compared with 5 goals total in the first 3 games on the series).  In the "new" NHL speed kills, and the Oilers may have the most team speed in the league.  They're definitely worth a shot at +605 to take the Cup back to Alberta.

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