I can remember the scene as clearly as if I had a burger roll in my hand right now. I was sitting in a friend’s back garden at one of the earliest barbecues of the year with a betting slip in my hand. One by one, the results rolled in and my profits soared.
This was back in the day before bookmakers had fully twigged what strange shenanigans occur at the end of a Serie A season. My wager was simply made by backing sides which had something left to fight for against those whose season was over. Some big names with previously impressive records went down to “surprise” defeats.
Did I have any inside knowledge? Had I spoken to key players on either side? Were there brown-paper bags containing my cold hard cash being handed to the match officials? The answer, if you are thinking of opening an investigation, is negative on all three counts. I simply backed my gut-feeling about how hard each side would fight.
Now, of course, the betting firms have cottoned on and often don’t even offer odds on the last few weeks of Italian action. They know the chances of a result which suits both sides are enormously increased. In short, teams with nothing left to achieve in their season are often very generous in dishing out points to their opponents.
The trouble is, however, that global media attention and worldwide gambling markets have given many of these “results of convenience” an unwanted glare of publicity. What once was almost accepted practice, has come to reflect badly on Serie A. But, the question is, how on earth do you combat this last-day-of-school approach to late season games?
I am not for one minute suggesting that this cultural phenomenon excuses players who do take money to ensure a result comes out a certain way. Footballers who agree to accept defeat for financial reward have no place in the game. However, how do you guarantee a whole team gives its all in a match which no longer affects the outcome of its season?
There has been the odd encouraging signal in this regard but, by and large, the old habits still remain. You can sometimes hear a side jeered for winning a game when it no longer needs the points. The theory has often been that you might need a “favour” yourself in future - so best not to kick an opponent when they are down.
The trouble with that approach, of course, is that it affects other teams not lucky enough to be playing a side already happy with its league position. It can make a seemingly difficult run-in for some clubs actually turn out quite easy and vice-versa. And as a side-effect it holds the Italian game up to international ridicule and scrutiny.
It is not, of course, the only nation where a match result can be forecast in advance. The most famous scoreline of convenience that springs to mind was Sweden and Denmark’s 2-2 to knock Italy out of Euro 2004. Nobody believes there was any agreement reached before the game, but it just often turns out that way.
Deep in the Italian psyche is lodged the philosophy of “minimo sforzo”, minimum effort. Once you have qualified from your group, won a title, made it into Europe or ensured league survival - why keep battling quite as hard? Time to take the foot off the gas, surely, and prepare for getting snapped by the paparazzi on some summer beach.
And that, I reckon, is the fundamental problem. How do you make these sides fight for their lives when they no longer really need to? Might some play-off system ensure fewer games of no consequence at the end of the season? Should the financial rewards be stepped up for every step up the league table a side finishes?
All of these steps might make a difference, but I doubt they can change the heart of Italian football. Games against the newly-crowned champions or sides safe in midtable will always be handy to have in the closing stages of a campaign. And, if you spot the chance, you can make a little money out of them in the process - without having to corrupt anyone along the way.