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The 'Growler' gives voice to Italy's dreams By Malcolm Moore
Shortly after the final whistle in Berlin on Sunday night, you may have noticed a short, bearded player hopping around awkwardly in his white Y-fronts.
Gennaro "the Growler" Gattuso is every Italian's favourite player. The fans love the wincing tackles he makes, a style he picked up during his formative years at Glasgow Rangers. It was Gattuso who threatened to "kill" Italy's manager, Marcello Lippi, last night if he quit.
Outside the dressing room, with his shorts back on, Gattuso swigged a beer and gave a television interview that electrified Italy. Instead of praising his team mates or the coach, he talked about the shame of the country's match-fixing scandal and how the players fed off its dark energy.
The team's victory, he said, was driven by the desire to show that Italian football is not as squalid as the scandal suggests. He then called for the clubs involved, which include his own, to be punished harshly. Nothing should be swept under the carpet in the euphoric comedown from the World Cup.
His employers at AC Milan, the club owned by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's former prime minister, must have been horrified. Mr Berlusconi and his allies have spent the past few weeks working behind the scenes to propose an amnesty. The players, after their heroics, should not be punished with relegation, they say.
However, the hundreds of thousands of delirious fans staring up at Gattuso on giant screens across Italy's piazzas were filled with a righteous zeal for truth and reform.
For them, winning the World Cup and cleaning up football could be the first step on the path to changing Italy's image from banana republic to major first-world power. "We saw another life, another country that is possible," said La Repubblica newspaper.
Certainly, two and a half months after the general election ushered out the Berlusconi era, Italy appears to be on the brink of major change.
In Sicily, where Mr Berlusconi's inattention allowed the Mafia to run rampant during his five years in charge, the new government has succeeded in capturing Bernardo Provenzano, the capo di tutti capi, and the heads of at least 13 major families. The Mafia, according to the police, is on its knees.
Italy's judges, whom Mr Berlusconi once called "mentally deranged", are now free again to fight corruption. Scandals are emerging at the rate of one a fortnight, as powerful financiers and politicians get locked up.
Meanwhile, costs are being cut by scrapping Mr Berlusconi's grands projets. Plans for the world's longest bridge, from the mainland to earthquake-prone Messina, have been shelved.
The new finance minister has warned that Italians will soon feel a sharp pain in their pockets as he tries to sort out the mess left behind by the previous government, but so far the voters have indicated that they are prepared to trust him.
Most important, Romano Prodi's Left-wing government appears to be more or less sticking together - a difficult feat for a nine-party coalition. Winning the World Cup, said one government minister, will lead to even greater unity.
He was being entirely serious. Football and politics are more closely intertwined in Italy than in any other European nation. After all, it was Benito Mussolini who championed the sport. Under Il Duce, Italy won two of its four World Cups and an Olympic gold medal.
Silvio Berlusconi even named his political party, Forza Italia, after a football chant, and made much of how he would "take the field" and bring some of the swashbuckling play of his club team, AC Milan, to the political world.
Yesterday, there was every indication that the victory is helping Italians renew their sense of nationhood. In the piazzas of Naples, fans lifted coffins painted in the French red, white and blue, while the cafés of Rome are now serving Asti Spumante rather than Champagne.
This will be essential in the months ahead. Italians, the vast majority of whom are self-employed or working in small family companies, have a notorious distrust of authority and the state.
They are forced to spend an average of 7,000 minutes a year queuing in order to satisfy the state's bureaucracy. It takes more than a year to win the permits to open a pizzeria, for example. Taxes, if they are paid, are ludicrously high. So it is no wonder that the country is seized with rampant individualism, or menefreghismo ("I don't care-ism").
This hatred for the state emerged again last week, when a tiny package of reforms was introduced which threatened ancient monopolies. Taxis went on strike and blockaded railway stations and airports in Rome, Milan, Turin and Genoa because the government wants to issue more permits and drive down fares.
Lawyers, who are incensed that the government wants to abolish the minimum charge they can hit a client with, started a 12-day strike yesterday.
Angry chemists are due to protest this week over plans to make aspirin available outside pharmacies.
Mr Prodi, the prime minister, seemed surprised at the violent reaction to this first set of trifling reforms. He has far more up his sleeve, so he must be hoping that the triumphant parades of the national team infect his fellow Italians with patriotic fervour.
Last night, it seemed as if the whole of Rome had poured into the ancient Roman chariot track of the Circus Maximus to welcome back their football team. Italian flags and banners have been sold out since the weekend.
However, more than half the team could come back to earth with a bump today as Italy's Football Association announces how it will punish the four clubs that are charged with match-fixing. Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon and Gianluca Zambrotta could soon be forced to leave their clubs or play in Italy's lower divisions.
The judgment may be enough to end the party abruptly, but hopefully it will not stamp on the flames of patriotism that were started in Berlin.
Italy needs some strong justice, and some football martyrs like Gennaro Gattuso, to close the door on Mr Berlusconi and begin to move forward.
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