Calcio in Heels – Conspiracies, Record-breakers and a Tactical Genius

The last time Calcio in Heels was on display for Goalden Times, it was soon after Inter’s Derby della Madonnina defeat over Milan. This time, Rossella Marrai continues to profile the Nerazzurri’s latest undefeated run with a stellar victory over Juventus and the man behind the empathic win. On top of it, the latest dilemma of referees and its continuous debate of whether it was ‘human error’ or a ‘bought referee’, also comes into play in November’s issue

Calcio’s conspiracies

Calcio is not just purely about football anymore. In Italy, it has become a fusion of both football and amalgamated conspiracy theories over years past to form a paradigm that certain fixtures have been bought over to procure a result.
No longer can two sets of players walk onto the field and see a goal given for straight ‘human error’. No, it’s a constantly growing force that has overshadowed the ‘Beautiful Game’.
Ever since the 2006 Calciopoli scandal erupted across the Italian peninsula, few fans, and even neutrals, can’t watch a game without the thought of ‘that must be fixed’ or ‘that team has bought the referee’ having crossed their mind.
It is a sad reality which needs to be stopped. Bad calls, offside goals, non-existent penalties don’t just happen in Italy but the conspiracies hit full throttle during Week Nine of Serie A.
The Stadio Angelo Massimino was the venue at question, Catania the victim and Juventus the one controlling the linesman’s flag – or so it was said by the cynics.
In that game, Gonzalo Bergessio had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside in the first half, whilst Arturo Vidal’s 57th minute goal was allowed to stand – by the same linesman as the incident before – when he was handed the ball with Nicklas Bendtner in an illegal position.
The incident arguably caused up a stir in an already heated affair with Catania eventually being reduced to ten men following Giovanni Marchese’s second booking.
We need to delete what happened. We have accumulated a lot of anger. I tried to close the doors on it on Monday morning already when training returned. I am sorry our merits on the field have not been shown in a proper light but now it is a chapter closed,” Catania coach Ronaldo Maran told reporters a few days after the encounter.

Catania’s perfectly good goal ruled out for offside (l), Nicklas Bendtner offside in the build-up to Vidal’s goal for Juventus (r)

If there was ever a large gathering of anti-Juve followers, the group suddenly grew bigger. The incidents didn’t do the Bianconeri any favours in clearing the label of ‘Rubentus’ (‘Rubare’ means to steal in Italian) dubbed on them after they were relegated to Serie B in 2006 for match-fixing.
Cries of ‘Ladri, Ladri, Ladri’ (thieves, thieves, thieves) were echoed across the Massimino on that sunny Sunday afternoon, and it only further laid reason to claim truth behind the conspiracy theories – that Juve had ‘bought’ the game.
History may not favour the Bianconeri in convincing the cynics that the decisions made by Luca Maggiani were in fact ‘human error’ but when a team is on a 47-match unbeaten run, why would a club need to pay off an official when their quality is miles ahead of their rivals?
It seems nonsensical that it is the same Juventus team which saw penalties wavered away as frequently as Lionel Messi’s scoring ratio last season.
It was almost as if last season the referees were scared to hand any favours to Juventus in order to see their names dragged through media dust. Is this a sign of a team who has bought officials? No.
The Bianconeri strengthened their squad for the 2011-2012 campaign and managed to complete the season undefeated, whilst this transfer market, Director General and Sports Department CEO of Juventus, Beppe Marotta has only but further increased the quality and depth in the squad. It seems illogical that a team, which holds significantly better talent from their scudetto winning season, would pay the match officials especially when the gap of quality to the likes of Milan had substantially widened. Only Inter could really truly rival them, whilst Napoli and Roma lack the depth and consistency.
The same weekend of the match against Gli Elefanti were Manchester United and Chelsea and those games too were overshadowed by controversy in poor refereeing and officiating decisions. It only goes to show that not only does it happen in Italy but it happens in England too and that ‘human error’ is so often crossed over the to the fine line of judgmental and rash opinions.
Games are won on the field and not via Electronic Funds Transfer.
Saturday, 3 November, was a prime example of this when Inter beat the Vinovo outfit despite Arturo Vidal scoring a goal 21 seconds into the game from an offside Kwadwo Asamoah pass. It was here where determination by Inter bettered the conspiracy skeptics and went on to break their undefeated record.

Juventus are beatable

The Juventini would tell you they won their ‘30thscudetto on the field last season, whilst – as per the norm – the Milanisti would beg to differ.  They would say the title was handed to Juve after an ‘unacceptable’ (as labelled by Milan themselves) offside decision wrongly went in favour of the Bianconeri when Sulley Muntari’s goal was cancelled out.
And while I don’t condone the fact that the decision to rule out the most evident goal by the Ghanaian was atrocious, it was not the reason for Juve’s title win. It was Milan’s inability to compete for the whole length of the season coupled with the injury crisis to have hit the squad which saw them give away the lead, whilst the Old Lady had done away with her walking stick and was running a full marathon.
Fans of the ‘anti-Juve’ academy were up in arms that scudetto number 30 or 28 – call it what you will – was only aided by several key refereeing moments, seeing them dubbed as ‘unbeatable’ due to the ‘favouritism’ handed to them. However, Inter and Andrea Stramaccioni put things straight.
Confident of his side’s ability from the off, Stramaccioni knew full well what his side was capable of: “They’re a bit more established, a bit more settled in terms of the way they play. It will be our biggest test yet to assess our progress.
I wouldn’t settle for a draw, though: we’re Inter and I’ve never gone out looking for anything less than victory. We’re not afraid,” the young coach told La Gazzetta dello Sport before the game.
Afraid they were not as they showed that the ‘unbeatables’ can, in fact, be beaten as Inter pulled off one of their most striking displays on the field this season.

Inter Milan ended Juventus’ 49-game unbeaten run

Even after conceding a goal so early on at the Juventus Stadium, Stramaccioni’s tenacity, instilled in his team to never give up, raised the bar of their performance and it was undoubtedly something few teams had in them in order to fight back.
Milan failed to overcome their anger after Muntari’s goal was disallowed and found more reasons to protest and argue than to fight back, while Catania’s Sicilian nature saw their hopes go void when they were reduced to ten men.
Inter, on the other hand, didn’t succumb to such emotions.
At half-time I was certain we’d get the game back on track and even win it, because I saw the way it was going. The whole team had belief and was fired up during the break. Inter are growing and that is the important thing,” Stramaccioni said after the game at the Juventus Stadium.
However, their determination and hunger to win wasn’t the only reason for Inter’s win; it was Stramaccioni’s astute tactical changes too.

Stramaccioni – Tactical Genius

Special Strama – From the victory in Torino to scudetto dreams.
The Inter coach has changed the squad and won everyone over in 40 days. The president and fans see Mourinho in him. And in the Serie A he has a 70% winning percentage: better than the legends…” read a headline from La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Labelled as a ‘tactical genius’ for his charismatic and clever way of reviving Inter, in the latter stages of last season, in which he helped move Inter up to sixth position and allowing them to qualify for the Europa League, Stramaccioni only further emphasized the reason behind the name.

At 36 years of age, ‘Strama’ is the youngest coach in Serie A and whilst his lack of experience may not reach the levels of some of today’s coaches in the league, the tactician hosts a world of enthusiasm to get him by.
Traditionally seen sporting his favoured formations of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, where the combination of a compact defensive unit aided in having perfect balance of an attacking line-up.  The formations proved to provide a reportedly unhappy Wesley Sneijder with a rejuvenated form and he too praised the young tactician’s efforts.

Special Strama

Fortunately now there is a coach who understands me, gives me a lot of energy and he has put things in order,” the Dutchman said after Stramaccioni’s appointment.
Although Sneijder’s new form – which saw him form part of an attacking trident of Antonio Cassano and Diego Milito – was often considered to be the puppet master in the way Inter’s results panned out, Stramaccioni was forced to adapt in his formation due to the playmaker’s absence from the Juve game.
Against the Bianconeri one could say the ‘element of surprise’ was used when Inter turned out in a 3-4-3 formation to counteract Juventus’ 3-5-1 structure.
I knew full well I’d play 3-4-3. I thought Juventus would have an advantage by knowing our tactics beforehand, so why should I make it easier for them? Our strength is that we are versatile and have a basic approach that can then be adjusted for each individual situation.
When I told the strikers I wanted to play this way, it perhaps surprised them too, but became an enormously motivating force and everyone stepped up,” said Stramaccioni, while revealing the thoughts behind his masterminding of such a result.
Inter’s attacking trio allowed was a force to be reckoned with as their constant overlapping runs and fluidity on movement allowed for Juventus’ backline to have little reference points to work off.
Another advantage to the new line-up saw the wide players in the Black and Blue shirts add extra pressure onto Juve’s wing-backs which required him to drop back whilst creating more space for Inter to utilize the open space. This was only emphasized when Fredy Guarin and Yuto Nagatomo contributed to the scoreline with their runs down the flanks.
The implementation of Guarin for Cassano provided Inter with more pace and versatility to their play. Guarin was at the heart of the Nerazzurro turnaround in the second half display as he continued to show the promise which saw him shipped to Italy for Portugal despite being injured.
A game is made of two halves and there was only one team who owned the second period of the match due to their initiative in not letting a wrong decision get the better of them. And in the words of Stramaccioni: “Juve keep talking about what happened on the pitch, on the pitch, on the pitch – well, Inter beat them on the pitch.”

Those three points added to the match accumulator of nine consecutive wins and the ‘unstitching’ of Juve’s pattern deservedly saw the revelatory coach named as a ‘Tactical Genius’.

Calcio in Heels – The Annual Managerial Sack Race

It’s all about the men in the dugout and the club’s season aspirations in ‘Calcio in Heels’ debuting piece for Goalden Times. Rossella Marrai takes a look at the change of faces on bench, the ones who remained, their club’s season ambitions and finally what to expect from the beguiling Zdenek Zeman

Eleven same faces on the bench

Coaches around the Italian peninsula of Serie A can all breathe a collective sigh of relief as they made it through their first three weeks of the season after giving their dramatic touchline orders from the dugout.

Rewind back to a year ago and things were quite dissimilar. Cagliari and Palermo had already replaced their coaches before the teams even walked onto the field. Massimo Cellino’s dispute with Roberto Donadoni saw him being shown the door before even completing pre-season with the Isolani, while further down the Mediterranean, in Sicily, the volatile Maurizio Zamparini was at his bid. At the end of the 2010-11 campaign, he had bid farewell to Delio Rossi and replaced him with Stefano Pioli, but a third round Europa Cup preliminary elimination to Swiss side, FC Thun resulted in Pioli feeling the wrath of Zampa as he was surprisingly replaced by Under-19 coach Devis Mangia. It didn’t end there; a few weeks later, Gian Piero Gasperini was already on route to Exit Week Five, before the eventual sacking of over a dozen coaches hit the headlines that season.

Two weeks into yet another eventual football season and every team has, albeit surprisingly, still managed to retain their coach, with Juventus in an awkward situation of having Massimo Carrera fill in for Antonio Conte due to his match-fixing and betting ban. Despite the summer break providing more twists and turns than Jennifer Lopez and Shakira battling it out in a dance-off, Juventus are undoubtedly the favourites to take the title.

Fancy a Dance-off?

 

Juventus director, Beppe Marotta can proudly sport a pompous look of triumph after he managed to scoop Udinese’s brightest players in Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla, who will add stability, creativity and a much needed depth and versatility to the squad as they enter the Champions League season.

The promising Paul Pogba’s switch from Old Trafford to the Old Lady infuriated Sir Alex Ferguson immensely – something which puts a smile on any Italian face – while Nicklas Bendtner is still a young promising striker who could very well fit into the Italian game. Conte’s loss from the sidelines may not seem as extreme as one would think when looking at the squad and their 4-1 riot over Udinese in Week Two proved to be the situation as they surpassed a run of 500 days without a defeat.

Carrera is well suited to be the man to take over on match days after he was appointed the understudy to Conte at the start of their triumphant campaign, and he knows a good thing or two about going undefeated. La Bandera, as he is known to the fans, unwittingly played a key role in Milan’s 1991-92 unbeaten campaign, when they embarked on a 58-match unbeaten run.  It was Carrera who headed in an own goal that tied Milan against Juventus and it would remain a key factor to that legendary match. But Carrera maintains that Conte is and will be the real man behind any success this season: “[Conte] is the real coach. I’m looking to take inspiration from him during the week so the team can continue to feel his presence,” he told the club’s official website.

Carrera & Conte – United we stand

Astonishingly only eleven coaches who ended off last season has remained on the same bench.

Stefano Colantuono will be seen waving his arms on the edge of the area in the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. For Atalanta, their ambitions are never one of reaching for the stars, but that of just keeping their kayak afloat in tepid water. The shaved head loud-mouthed coach always seems to get the best out of his team but fails to keep the momentum flowing throughout the year, and their two-point deduction at the start of the season isn’t an easy digestive. Meanwhile, Pioli and Donadoni got their own back on Zamparini and Cellino after they managed to make a success with their new teams, in Bologna and Parma, respectively.

Sebastian Giovinco’s departure may result in a loss in quality in the Parma squad, but Donadoni has proved on timeless occasions he doesn’t necessarily need a star man in the squad, rather a cohesive unit working together. His interchanging from a back four to a back three to suit his opponents has seen him create a more confident and open-minded Ducali side, who seem willing to go out on a limb. Should they mirror their impressive run at the final stages of last season, they could very well be the surprise package competing for Europa League football.

Allegri – Not as he imagined

 

Former Cagliari trainer, Massimo Allegri is currently undergoing a much talked about and highly controversial revolution whilst in his third season with Milan. No longer are the days when Alessandro Nesta will be standing guard in defence, Clarence Seedorf doing tricks with the number 10 jersey on his back and Gennaro Gattuso prowling up and down the field like a hungry dog. The mass exodus, and minimal action in the transfer market, has seen a large amount of blame being shunned upon the coach’s shoulders, after reports suggested a rift amongst the players and management. Completely written off as league contenders, the Rossoneri would consider themselves as fortunate if they grab the final Champions League place next season as they line up their weakest squad in years.

Across the town of Milan, the highly rated Andrea Stramaccioni will continue to oversee Inter after he took over as interim coach from Claudio Ranieri. The fans are expecting a lot from young and fresh blood coming in along with the creative flair of Antonio Cassano, Wesley Sneijder and Rodrigo Palacio to supply balls to their leading striker, Diego Milito. Though the well worked and under the radar transfer window may have seemed a success, Stramaccioni’s backline is an area which leaks more than a colander. The 5-4 win over Genoa, in his first game in charge in March, was easy pickings for the Grifoni’s frontline, while their latest 3-1 loss to Roma in Week Two still proved there is work to be done. Should Stramaccioni find a secure material to plaster the holes whilst continuing their fluid attacking play, the Nerazzurri could favour themselves in giving Juventus a run for the prize money.

New kids on the block

Simplicity is not a word in the Sienese dictionary. In a town renowned for its cantuccini and baked treats, the Tuscans once again found themselves being dealt the biscotto. As if staying alive in their return season wasn’t hard enough, they lost coach Giuseppe Sannino and sporting director Giorgio Perinetti to Palermo in the off-season, all whilst being deducted a colossal six points for their involvement in the match fixing and betting scandal. In return, they welcomed Serse Cosmi to save Lecce, after coming in midseason, and he now faces the rarity of taking over a team from the beginning and the monstrous task of survival. “This is a very nice day for me, I finally have the chance to return to being a coach from the start of the season,” he announced in his unveiling. “It has been my privilege in an 18-year career that several times I have been called in to take over a club midseason, but it is definitely not ideal for any coach. Siena has for many years been in Serie A, with just one term in B, and they have always proven to have the right ambition and the awareness and strength to compete at the highest level.”

In addition, Ciro Ferrara and Giampiero Ventura made their return to the hot seat of Serie A. The former replaced Giuseppe Iachini on the Sampdoria bench, despite handing them promotion from Serie B, while the latter got his Serie A season underway against Siena, for the first time since his Bari days. The pressure was on for Ferrara to make the season a success, following the impressive reinforcements of Enzo Maresca, who returns to Serie A for the first time since 2005, Simon Paulsen, Maxi Lopez and Marcelo Estigarribia. The swoop of the former Malaga player was the coup of the transfer window for the club, and one, which Ferrara pushed for. He told Sky Italia: “I strongly wanted Maresca here, as I know his qualities both in technical terms and with regards to his experience.”

On the calf of the Boot, it will be an uphill battle for Giovanni Stroppa’s men in this campaign. Following their instant promotion back into Italy’s elitist club, Pescara have since been caught in the baptism by fire and it is doubtful that things will get easier. f it wasn’t for Siena’s six-point deficit and Atalanta’s two points at the start of the season, the two consecutive defeats to Inter and Torino would in fact see them lying stone-last on the table.

Their cause was not aided by the transfers of the crème de la crème of the next generation of Italian players: Ciro Immobile (Genoa), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) and Marco Veratti (PSG). And vital in their push in becoming Serie B champions, was the chain-smoking, outspoken and drastically aged, Zdenek Zeman.

The return of Zemanlandia

Originally leaving the game due to its lack of purism, Zeman became famously known for his anti-Juve banter after he openly questioned the muscular explosion of the Juventus players of 1998. And he made no hesitancy in resorting back to his old ways when Antonio Conte was hit with his match day suspension. “A suspended player can train, but I think a coach with a long ban shouldn’t be able to train his team,” commented Zeman in a Press conference. “I haven’t read the full verdicts of the betting trial, but if people want to weaken this phenomenon then they have to be more decisive.”

Wily Fox – if ever there was one

 

 Zeman once again stirred up the same warm emotion in the hearts of Giallorossi faithful when he announced his return to the club.  Ironic or befitting, his return to the capital coincided with the exact day of his release from his duties at the club 13 years ago. The haze of fumata bianca was warmly welcomed by new owner Thomas DiBenedetto as the second stage of the Roma project enters its midst. Originally brought in to head the project was the Spaniard, Luis Enrique. But like so many of his opposite numbers mentioned previously in this column, he divorced from the club labelling his reasons as a result of ‘tiredness’. The inevitable return of, what is highly uncommon in the capital, the former Lazio and Roma coach sparked enthusiasm across both divides of the fans as they labelled it: ‘Zeman Part ll: The Revenge’. His flamboyant character in front of the media is a site to behold, with his football even more so. Continuity is expected to be kept in the same 4-3-3 formation implemented by the Spaniard before him, but while Enrique’s play was highly possession based and full of horizontal play, Zeman’s will be in complete contrast. Known for his attack-minded style of play, one can expect hard and endless runs from his players, vertical balls, bursting moves and a large percentage of the squad poking around in the box. With Pescara last season, his squad tallied in a master stroke of 90 goals – a feat no team could reach in Serie A, with the Rossoneri hitting the highest with a 74-goal mark.

Concerns in the defensive area continue to circulate around the Eternal City, after last season 54 goals seep in under Enrique – the second highest in the top half of the table. Nevertheless, the Czech still remains unperturbed over it: “It’s normal that every now again you risk something but when you score 90 goals [like Pescara did] it’s not important to see how many you let in.”

Zeman’s love-hate relationship with Italian football was nothing short of pure chaotic entertainment, when he first started coaching in the capital, and he will undoubtedly provide truck load more of quirks, giggles, anti-Juve rants, and, above all, entertaining football.

Marrai’s prediction table: Who will get the sack first?

Is that Giovanni Stroppa’s mini-me version?

Giovanni Stroppa – It may be considered near insanity to try to take over from the phenomenon labelled  Zemanlandia, but to take over when the plush stars have parted ways is a mission not even James Bond would sign up for.

Two heavy defeats in the first two weeks of the campaign have only but put a heavy dent in the players’ confidence, and should Stroppa fail to get some points out of his next two games against Sampdoria and Bologna, he will be turning left at Exit Week Four. Survival is the minimum they will be aiming for.

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 ** Editor’s Note: Last week at Palermo, Gian Piero Gasperini was appointed as their new coach after dismissing Giuseppe Sannino. **

A Cultural Dilemma

Italian football is hit by a new scandal – Calcioscommesse. Gino de Blasio tries to find out why Italian football has been plagued by these scandals

In an interview published in La Repubblica[1], a key figure in the recent Calcio Scommesse investigation has provided details to a match-fixing scandal gripping a nation.

We buy information and then bet. Players call me and say ‘€20,000 on this game or this result.’ And I do it, it’s that simple.” Who are the football players? “30 in total, 90% from Serie B and the rest from Serie A, I’ll never tell you their names though.”

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It seems that whilst the informant is intent on not naming the players, he does indicate this to being an Italian only problem. “The players are the heart of the problem, the English league doesn’t have this kind of issue, but in Italy, players talk between themselves, they arrange the results, be it with us, with the Hungarian or Sicilian mafia’s, or even Beppe Signori, who is the head of the Calcio Scommesse in Italy.”

It reads like something straight out of a John Grisham novel, and has all the less palatable elements of a leftover three-day-old takeaway; but the latest Calcio Scommesse scandal in Italy has brought into question not only the actions of the individuals but the sport as a whole in the Italian peninsula.

It seems that this time though, in difference to the 2006 Calciopoli debacle, it is more the figures behind the scandal that is causing the shock. Names such as Stefano Bettarini, Beppe Signori and Cristiano Doni have given way to the gossip and tell-tale nature of Italian journalism, causing the guilty before charged tags in some cases.

In a two-hour interview given to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Cristiano Doni had admitted guilt in his part, reaching out to other players and pleading with them to “never commit the same mistakes as me.” It’s a sad and psychological blow to the game, system, player and fans alike, that someone so loved had succumbed to the criminality that is an undercurrent in the current Italian system, and perhaps even further afield.

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The dossier being created for the prosecution grows daily, with more and more individuals being involved, all from different backgrounds, and fewer it seems for now, actually coming from the world of football; it still doesn’t stop the unfounded accusations of some to name and shame stars such as Gennaro Gattuso, Gigi Buffon and Morgan De Sanctis.

In what has become an even more intriguing twist and turn, former Bari captain and now suspended Atalanta defender Andrea Massiello has become the man that the investigation has turned to following arrest and shock confessions.

Massiello’s actions in the Pugliese Derby last season saw Lecce staying up and Bari going down. His own goal sealed the deal. An own goal, which, when watched over and over, you get to realise just how much one man’s corrupted actions sealed the fate of a team he loved playing for.

Now, under arrest and facing many years in jail for match-fixing, he’s talking. What will come out, and what accusations are made, the intensity and the anger directed to others and their corroborators, only time will tell.

Getting Away with It

When Illievski (the informant) made the point that this is ‘an Italian only problem’ it had me thinking, could he be right? Is there something intrinsic in the nature of Italian culture that makes these actions acceptable in the minds of those committing the crime?

[pullquote]Andrea De Carlo once said, “In Italy corruption is in the blood, even if we don’t like it.[/pullquote]

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One Twitter friend and Serie A enthusiast, Rocco Camisola (@rcammisola) finds the term “corruption”  a bit too harsh to describe such affairs. “Self-Serving” is more appropriate in the way he thinks of it, and I couldn’t agree more.

From stories of blatant copying in school exams, to passing your driving test in the most unconventional of manners, through to tax evasion, these used to be things that weren’t chastised but praised. You’d receive a pat on the back for having done the “right thing”. These have been ingrained into the Italian culture. Slowly changing, but still ingrained; it can’t just change overnight.

Whether or not it’s a far reach to associate a footballing scandal with the “anti-Tuscan hills” imagery of Italian culture in such a way is probably best left with the sociologists; however, it’s hard to not see an association when you look at the country’s ideology as a whole.

It, self-serving, resides in the political class, medical fields and even education boards. And these aren’t just wild accusations that some desk jockey, I, am coming out with, but court cases brought forward and resolved. Is this to mean that it is only in Italy? No, however, it seems they don’t mind not hiding it either.
And whilst a “new” generation of thinking is taking shape, it also holds true, as the great Caesar once famously said, while speaking of his legacy, “If it takes 10 years to create, it will take 100 to destroy.” And maybe this latent acknowledgement of self-serving interest even in Caesar’s day goes to show there is a long way to go when it comes to eradicating it from the culture, and then perhaps from the game.

Is football’s self-serving nature more likely to occur in Italy because of the elements stated? Perhaps, but times change, and with that so does mentality.


[1] Disclaimer: this is an Italian only scam, hence link not in English