Mamma mia. Even by the usual standards of Italian football intrigue, these are astonishing times in the country’s favorite sport. It’s scandal season in Serie A.
So far, betting investigations and bans have dominated the conversations but the suggestion of more revelations to come is now putting a focus on closeted gay footballers.
Let’s pull back and turn the camera on Fabrizio Corona, the so-called ‘King of the Paparazzi,’ who has been the hugely controversial central figure in this rapidly unfolding drama.
Back in 2007, it emerged that the Sicilian entrepreneur was involved in an extortion scheme known as “Vallettopoli”, in which the rich and powerful — including some footballers — were photographed in compromising situations and then blackmailed.
Corona was convicted for his part in the racket, and over the course of the last 16 years he has been in and out of jail and placed under house arrest for periods of time. He also wrote a book about “Vallettopoli”, appeared on reality TV, and even starred as a mafia boss in a TV drama.
He was finally released last month, and the 49-year-old has wasted no time in launching a new project called ‘Dillinger News’, named after the American gangster who became a media sensation during the Great Depression.
A week ago, it emerged that Juventus midfielder Nicolo Fagioli was under investigation for illegal betting activities and within two days, Corona was revealing the names of two more players whose betting activities were allegedly being probed — former AC Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali, who was transferred to Newcastle in the summer, and Nicolo Zaniolo, who is also in England with Aston Villa having left Roma earlier this year.
In a series of fast-moving developments, Corona then alleged that a fourth player was also under investigation for illegal betting — Roma’s Poland international wing-back Nicola Zalewski — while on Tuesday, the Italian football federation (FIGC) announced that Fagioli had been banned for seven months and had agreed to receive treatment for a gambling addiction.
Three more players have since been accused of involvement in illegal betting. Dillinger News named Lazio’s Nicolo Casale as the fifth player to be caught up in the scandal, while Corona then mentioned Roma winger Stephan El Shaarawy and Juventus defender Federico Gatti as having contravened betting rules.
As with Zaniolo and Zalewski, all three are understood to have denied the allegations.
Tonali is yet to speak out but his agent has stated that his client does have a gambling addiction.
Through all this, Corona has made appearances across Italian media, fueling interest in the story and adding extra morsels of gossip. On Wednesday, he was a guest on Canale 5’s satirical news show ‘Striscia La Notizia’ and expanded on a claim he had made on Dillinger News that Italian football is beset by more “scandals,” not just illegal betting.
He wrote on the website last week: “I decided to move into the back world of football to reveal the many distortions that hide there. Not just betting, but there is much more.
“We will soon talk, for example, about gay footballers and why none of them have ever revealed publicly that they are gay. What’s stopping it? What makes them hide?”
Asked to elaborate on this by the show’s host Valerio Staffelli, Corona said: “What if the next scoop will be gay footballers? Yes. Actually, I have already said something. I had already mentioned a name on Telegram.”
Corona’s response referenced his own Telegram channel and a footballer who he messaged his followers about in April. He claimed that he had received a report that the player in question is gay, along with additional unverified information about who he had been dating.
The gossip received some attention in Italy at the time but Corona’s new comments have reignited those online rumors, particularly as the player has been transferred in the interim to a Serie A club, which Corona did name.
To date, the player has never spoken publicly about his sexuality; Outsports respects his decision, and hopes the player is able to take back control of his personal narrative.
Corona added to Staffelli: “We are in a new era — everyone talks about LGBTQ rights and yet no one in football talks about it. Or rather none of the players came out.
“But how is this possible? Does something like this seem normal to you? In your opinion, in all football clubs, there is no gay footballer? Why don’t they say it?”
He concluded: “My next business will be to carry out investigations on my site and then we’ll see.”
The fresh tangent to Corona’s explosive revelations comes just a few days after Cagliari midfielder Jakub Jankto told the BBC LGBT Sport Podcast that he has had a positive experience in the game since coming out publicly earlier this year.
Jankto is the world’s only male footballer to be an active international and out as gay, although he hasn’t played for the Czech Republic since last year and hasn’t been called up to the national team squad since sharing his story.
He signed for Cagliari in the summer and has since made two starts and one substitute appearance for the club, who are winless after eight games and sit bottom of the table. Illness and injury problems have kept Jankto sidelined since early September.
The 27-year-old was on loan at Sparta Prague when he came out in February and said the following month that being back in his homeland was a significant factor in his decision to go public. “I could never have said it when I was playing in Italy or Spain,” he told Sky Italia.
He added in that Sky interview: “There are other gay football players. There were, there are and there will be in future. I don’t want to push them into coming out, but perhaps my example can help them and in future they’ll think, maybe I can do it as well.”
This weekend, Cagliari play away to Salernitana, whose sporting director Morgan De Sanctis was saying much the same as Jankto almost a decade ago.
De Sanctis was Roma’s goalkeeper back then and told Gazzetta Dello Sport that the homophobic environment of Italian football kept gay players firmly in the closet.
Juventus have arguably been the most prominent supporters of LGBTQ inclusion in Italian football, having last year won an anti-homophobia award for a short film featuring then Juve player Lina Hurtig, her wife and daughter.
They have also lit up their Allianz Stadium in rainbow during Pride Month in recent years as part of a charity initiative called ‘More Colorful Together’.
The full impact of Corona’s shock interventions is yet to be seen, but inevitably it will be putting pressure on gay and bisexual footballers in the men’s game, not least the current Serie A player other than Jankto whose identity the blogger has already highlighted more than once.
Expect more chaos in the coming days.