Scandal-hit Italy turns to patriotism vs England

With surprisingly little fan support in stadiums at the European

Championship, Italy is taking motivation from a passionate message

sent to the squad by the country’s president.

His voice cracking with emotion, Giorgio Napolitano wished the

team well ahead of Sunday’s quarterfinal with England, saying

advancing from the group stage had provided a boost to the

nation.

Later, Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon opened a routine news

conference with a statement to explain how much the message means

to the squad, which has been affected by a match-fixing and betting

scandal back home.

”In a tough time for our country and for our profession, it

gives us a lot of strength,” said Buffon, who recently had his

banking records examined on suspicion he made large bets. ”Spoken

by someone of his stature, it doesn’t go unobserved. … We hope we

can repay him, and our nation, with the pride and joy that comes

with wearing this shirt.”

Napolitano attended Italy’s opening 1-1 draw with Spain, and

hugged Buffon after going down to the changing room after the

match. No Italian politicians will attend the match in Kiev to

protest the treatment of jailed Ukraine opposition leader Yulia

Tymoshenko.

The presence of the 86-year-old Napolitano evoked memories of

former Italy President Sandro Pertini cheering the Azzurri on

during their title run at the 1982 World Cup, which came in the

wake of a similar betting scandal.

”We really created a special feeling of reciprocal respect,”

Buffon said Friday. ”He’s our top citizen and also our top

fan.”

While never known for traveling en masse, Italian supporters

were greatly outnumbered at each of the team’s group games against

Spain, Croatia and Ireland. With Italy hit by hard economic times,

only 3,000 fans are expected in Kiev compared to more than 10,000

English supporters.

Special charter planes arranged to fly fans in have been

canceled due to low demand.

The week before Italy flew to Poland, reports surfaced over

large payments from Buffon to the owner of a tobacco shop in Parma

that is also a betting parlor. Buffon has not been placed under

investigation and is not accused of any wrongdoing, but the

revelations still shook the Azzurri camp.

Also, center back Leonardo Bonucci is under investigation for

match-fixing and fullback Domenico Criscito was a late cut from the

squad after he, too, was placed under investigation.

Buffon has been Italy’s starting goalkeeper for more than a

decade and, with 117 appearances, is the Azzurri’s most experienced

player.

When Italy won the 2006 World Cup amid a similar match-fixing

scandal involving his Juventus club, Buffon was one of the standout

players – conceding only two goals in seven matches, with one of

them an own-goal and the other a penalty from France’s Zinedine

Zidane in the final.

”We nearly always have (a scandal),” Buffon said. ”So we’re

probably used to living with these difficulties.”