The footballer and the Mafia: Fabrizio Miccoli’s flirtation with ‘Cosa Nostra’

When the British East India Company returned from the Far East in the 1660s, they presented a strange plant called tea to King Charles II. His beautiful Portuguese bride quickly became fond of it for treating her colds. Some 20 years earlier, a merchant by the name of Peter Mundy noted it as “only herb boiled with a kind of herb boiled in it.”

When they began adding milk, tea, and honey to the drink, another component was also deemed to prevent the plague of many sailors – scurvy. It was a commodity of which the Italian island of Sicily had plenty. The lemon craze in the 1870s sent the island into an economic boom that astonished for the domestic population.Under the Bourbon feudal economic system, many native Sicilians moved away from their invaders’ control and corruption, and receded into the hills to form their own communities. The Mediterranean’s largest island had a merry-go-round of foreign invaders since Ancient Greece, which has undoubtedly inscribed a “suspicion of others” into Sicilian DNA. Choosing to do business within their own groups, ‘La Cosa Nostra,’ or ‘Our Thing,’ became the Sicilian way to “run things.”

When the citrus boom put unforeseen sums of money on the street, some were quick to maximize their profits. Thus, social conditions under a sphere that lacked public trust, the fall of the feudal system produced a need for protection when land became divided and privately owned. It was there in the citrus groves of Palermo that laid the groundwork for the Mafia.

Some 100 years later, the famous anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone had just been assassinated on the island. The roadside bomb that murdered him, his wife, and bodyguard, was an event that proved a true-life nightmare for all of Italy. Just after the Maxi Trial had successfully found 360 mafiosas guilty, the nation was delivered another catastrophe as their great crusader was brought down by criminal organisation.

Any short-term solution to ridding the peninsula of the Mafia seemed justifiably lost, and the outlook was bleak for the oncoming generations.

Just as Falcone’s life came to a grim end, a prestigious career was being born for a young player by the name of Fabrizio Miccoli. Milan’s youth academy had another exciting number ten in their ranks – swift, finely tuned on the ball and deadly in making the final play. Stout, yet surely the model fantasista that Italy has become famous for manufacturing.

Making his way from Lecce, in the region of Puglia (Apulia), the spritely player steered away from the temptations to make quick money. Although the Mafia has its foundations in Sicily, another faction by the name of Sacra Corona Unita formed in Puglia by the time of Miccoli’s birth. Between the Mafia, Camorra, ‘Ndrangheta, and Sacra Corona Unita, the fact that any Southern-Italian youth could resist the temptation for quick money and maintain a moral life is often a challenge within itself.

Yet, the Lecce-youth had bigger fish to fry. After making his professional debut at 17 years of age, he moved to Serie B side Ternana, where he scored 15 goals in the 2001/02 season.

The “new Del Piero” was quickly snapped up by Juventus, before a loan move saw him help Perugia to an UEFA Intertoto Cup spot – and a call-up to the Azzurri. Soon, however, with limited playing time behind Alessandro Del Piero and a falling-out with then-manager Fabio Capello, it was time for the Maradona of the Salento to move once again.

After playing his part in Fiorentina’s salvation on the last day of the 2004/05 season, another loan move was in the works for a player Juventus could not seem to figure out – yet accusations in 2005 against the former directors of his parent-club would not help his future in Italy.

When the Calciopoli scandal erupted in Italy, several different teams such as Juventus, Milan, and Lazio would be tried and proven guilty for having a network of relations between team managers and referees. The match-fixing scandal eventually saw Luciano Moggi, the Juventus general manager, receive a lifetime ban from football and a recommendation to the FIGC (Italian Football Federation) President that he be banned for life from membership to the FIGC at any level.

Miccoli testified against Moggi for meddling in player relations: “One time I was in Ritiro (summer training) with Juventus, and Moggi had contacted my agent, telling him that there had been an agreement for me to transfer to Portsmouth. I refused though, I didn’t want to go to England because I had a baby girl and my wife didn’t want to move out of the country.

“Then Moggi told me that he would stop me from playing, adding that no one inside Italy wanted me because I was a difficult player to work with and I had a difficult character – and that Juve ‘couldn’t afford’ to lose two million Euros a year from paying me.”

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Miccoli missed out on Italy’s 2006 triumph.

There was seemingly enough fire in these words to see the second striker dropped from Marcello Lippi’s squad that would win the 2006 World Cup. With Francesco Totti’s fitness deemed questionable following recovery from a horrific ankle injury, Miccoli seemed likely to make the squad. But given Lippi’s close ties to the Old Lady, controversy stirred when he was omitted from the final squad that traveled to Germany.Lippi commented on the situation amid growing speculation from the media: “I am constantly keeping him under observation. He’s a big quality player and technically he is really good. He is a genius. Miccoli is a forward that can be really important for all teams in which he plays.”

While his chapter for the Azzurri had come to a close, the Romario of the Salento would endure legal controversy of his own just a few years later.

On 5 July 2007, Miccoli joined Palermo, where he almost instantly become a club hero and city icon. He had just returned from Benfica, where his scoring of sensational and crucial goals – such as his scissor kick against Liverpool in the Champions League – made him a fan-favorite of the Portuguese side.

His partnership with Serie A newcomer and breakthrough player of the 2007 South America Youth Championship, Edinson Cavani, was an ideal tandem. In the 2007/08 season, the pair combined for 14 goals each.

Two years later, Miccoli earned the honour of captain in the Sicilian capital. That 2009/10 season, he scored 19 goals which tied him for the third most in the league – scoring a hat-trick in late March against Bologna, and becoming the club’s all-time leading goal scorer in May.

But, just as he was enjoying the highest point of his life, Miccoli’s world would come crashing down in the summer of 2013.

Palermo’s anti-Mafia unit had wiretapped his phone due to an amicable relationship with the son of notorious mafia boss, Antonino Lauricella. On the recordings, Miccoli mentioned recovering monies owed to him by the owners of a nightclub, and using the son for collecting the debt.

La Repubblica would also later report that he mentioned “that filth Falcone,” referencing none other than the late Judge Falcone.

The town of Corleone – made infamous by the Godfather trilogy that painted Hollywood’s interpretation of the organisation – revoked his honorary citizenship.

What made the situation so peculiar were not the allegations of extortion within itself, but that in a charity match in Palermo, he had dedicated his goals scored to Falcone and Paolo Borsellino (another judge assassinated for his anti-mafia stance).

Miccoli attempted to clear the air, denying that he knew his friend Mauro was the son of a boss: “I ask forgiveness of the whole city of Palermo, I ask forgiveness of my family who brought me up with values and respect.”

Following five hours of interrogation, he added, “In the last few years, I wanted not just to be the captain of Palermo, but to be available to everyone. I hung around with people who I thought would be real friends, but I was wrong.

“I answered every question that was asked of me. Now I need to be reborn, to stop all stupidity, I need to grow.”

If Miccoli was just having a casual conversation with Mauro, who has recently been absolved of a similar blackmail case, or was culpable in the illicit business, is yet to be determined. Mauro is now facing charges of violent bodily harm in his case with Miccoli.

This May, the situation reappeared four years after the original accusations, with the state prosecutor calling for a four-year sentence to the Lecce native. His lawyer, Giovanni Castronovo, replied, “We are stunned by the request. It’s in total contrast to what the prosecutor wrote in his filing request and the sentence that ruled there was no extortion.”

Castronovo concluded “Nothing represented by the defence was taken into consideration.”

Judge Falcone’s mission helped clean an island that had been plagued by corruption, which had its foundations in the social reactions to foreign invaders. While Sicily and Italy have paid for these misfortunes, there are encouraging signs of a brighter future. Whether Miccoli’s words and alleged actions are to be deemed in malice, or just plain silliness, will be decided upon by another judge.

Miccoli will be remembered as one of Italy’s great number tens – one who scored incredible goals, lifted his teams in and out of the peninsula, and eventually returned to help his home club – there is no doubt that he has put a blemish on his otherwise altruistic and fantastic career.

If he manages to stay out of prison and continues in charitable events, then the Maradona of the Salento will be able to surpass these issues and prove to his country that he truly is one for the kids to look up to – a Bandiere that belongs to his home of Lecce, adopted city of Palermo, and all of football.

Words by Wayne Girard: @WayneinRome

Wayne is an assistant professor at Monmouth University, and wrote his MA thesis on the politics of Roma’s Curva Sud. As well as @GentlemanUltra, he can also be found writing for @OfficialASRoma.