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Italian Squad Facing Demotion After World Cup Joy
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Carrying home their golden trophy, Italy's triumphant World Cup squad returned Monday evening to delirious crowds of more than a half-million fans, but joy might be short-lived: many of the players could find themselves consigned to the unglamorous lower divisions of the domestic soccer league this week when verdicts in a match-fixing trial are announced.

Team captain Fabio Cannavaro, clutching the trophy, was first to emerge from the chartered plane that brought the team back from Germany a day after Italy's victory over France on penalty kicks. Acrobatic air force planes streaked overhead, coloring the sky with streams of red, white and green smoke, hues of the Italian flag, as well as in blue, which is the team's nickname.

After hours of impatient waiting, fans estimated by civil protection officials to number at least 500,000 cheered and jumped for joy at a victory rally in Rome when Cannavaro hoisted the trophy at Circus Maximus, an area for entertainment in ancient Rome. Tens of thousands were streaming to the field, and the crowd kept swelling.

"Proud to be Italians," read a banner draped from the platform where the players, hoarsely sang the national anthem, and the fans rocked in a sea of twirling, red-white-and-green fans. Some of the players, looking almost giddy with exhaustion, wrapped flags like scarves on their head.

"Whoever doesn't jump is a Frenchman," the players chanted, inventing words to an Italian communist folk song, as the crowd jumped in delight in response.

The players had stood on the top level of an open-roofed bus as the vehicle struggled to move through thousands of fans, who, snapping photos with their cell phones, ran after their heroes en route to the rally.

Fans on foot or on motorscooters had overwhelmed police escorts in the streets and squares of the capital, and forcing the bus to a crawl, as the players made their way to their first stop in Rome: a toast hosted by Premier Romano Prodi, who spoke about the scandal.

"Thanks, thanks for reminding young people that results come only with hard work, sweat and commitment," Prodi, flanked by national coach Marcello Lippi, told the players at the premier's office in Chigi Palace.

In a clear reference to the scandal that convulsed Italian soccer this spring, the premier spoke of "the dignity of a sport with precise rules, which needs a great cleanup." He said the victory was "reason for joy, for pride, but also for great responsibility."

"Thanks for having given back to soccer, rocked by a storm without equal, the dignity which it deserves," Prodi said.

The players at times were as delirious as their fans. Francesco Totti, a hometown hero, leaned out of a window in the premier's office and held the trophy out to the crowd below, which roared in delight.

Fans danced with joy in Circus Maximus, as a plump, reddish moon shone in the sky above Rome. Fireworks added more color to the sky.

"I am very happy because Italy won after an extremely long 24 years," said Toni Gnisci, 31, referring to the previous World Cup victory by Italy in 1982.

Walter Pica, 14, was too young to remember earlier triumphs but said he was "glad because I will have my first World Cup to recount to my children" when some day he has a family. Pica and his friends waved flags and watched replays of key Cup moments as they joined the noisy crowd in Circus Maximus.

At the nearby ruins of the Baths of Caracalla, an evening performance of "Madama Butterfly" was canceled. The noise from the sea of fans would have drowned out even the most powerful opera singer.

Italian newspapers have reported the verdicts will be handed down on Wednesday.

While people reveled in the team's successes and praised the players, many said the victory should not translate into lack of punishment for the guilty.

"One victory does not absolve one from everything. I am sure that this is what most Italians think," said 55-year-old Elsa Stucchi, a park worker in Milan.

"Those who make mistakes should pay," said Marco Penzo, 38, a taxi driver in Milan. "It is sad, however, that the mistakes of the managers of the teams reflect on the players and they shouldn't, we fully deserved to win against the French."

Prosecutors in the sports trial are seeking demotion for domestic champions Juventus to Serie C,the third division, or lower; and for Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio to be relegated to Serie B. It is also seeking to strip Juventus, the club at the center of the scandal, of the league titles it won in the past two seasons.

"It is not going to go away," said Alfonso Franco, a 20-year-old mechanic in Rome. "We have to deal with this scandal, whether or not we won the World Cup."

But some believe the probe that is ripping apart the national sport back home helped inspire the players in Germany and propelled the team to victory.

Nicola Porro, a sports sociologist who teaches at the University of Cassino, said that "there is no doubt that this was a team that found strength in a tactic of resistance."

"If the scandal hadn't happened I don't think we would have won the World Cup," Italy's midfielder Gennaro Gattuso said. "It has given us more strength."

The victory in Germany was good for clubs back home. Juventus' stock price was up 5.7 percent at the close of trading on the Milan exchange on Monday.

For hours after the victory, joyous fans celebrated hit the streets in droves, waving flags, setting off fireworks and stripping down to their underwear and jumping into fountains.

A 20-year-old man drowned near the northern sea resort of Santa Margherita, and his body found Monday morning, still wrapped in an Italian flag, according to the ANSA news agency.

Associated Press reporters Marta Falconi in Rome and Joseph Spinks in Milan contributed to this story.

(AP via China Daily July 11, 2006)

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