Nicolo Fagioli's rebirth: From gambling ban to Italy recall for Euro 2024

The notification flashed up on Nicolo Fagioli’s phone.

The provisional Italy squad for Euro 2024 was out. He had hoped but did not expect to be in it. And yet, as Fagioli scrolled down the list of 30 names, sure enough, he’d made it. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It was a fantastic feeling.”

A little awkward, too.

His Juventus team-mate Manuel Locatelli was a high-profile absentee from Luciano Spalletti’s selection. Locatelli won the European Championship with Italy three years ago and deputised brilliantly for Marco Verratti in the opening games against Turkey and Switzerland. He was part of the international setup as recently as March and must have felt he had a good chance of defending Italy’s title in Germany. Locatelli played more than 3,000 minutes for Juventus this season. He won the Coppa Italia and got his club side back into the Champions League.

Fagioli, by contrast, missed seven months of football. His ban for using illegal betting sites to gamble on football only expired on May 20. Luckily for him, Juventus’ penultimate game of the season away to Bologna had been moved to that day. He played 20 minutes at the Renato Dall’Ara. Less than a week later, he made his only start of 2024 in a 2-0 win over Monza, assisting Alex Sandro’s opener as the curtain came down on Juventus’ campaign.

“I was surprised to be called up after seven months out,” Fagioli admitted. “Locatelli’s a mate. We’re close. He’s sad not to be going. I spoke to him and told him he deserved to be here.”


Fagiloi and Italy head coach Luciano Spalletti at a press conference earlier this month (Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Comparisons have been made between Fagioli and Paolo Rossi, who returned from a two-year suspension on April 29, 1982, to score the goals that won Italy the World Cup in Spain later that summer. But the parallels are not the neatest. Spalletti was a lower-league player in Tuscany when Rossi got caught up in the Totonero scandal. “They’re two different stories,” he said, harking back to his early twenties.

Rossi’s misfortune was to be found in hanging around the team hotel on the Amalfi coast one winter’s day in 1979 when Perugia team-mate Mauro Della Martira beckoned him over. He introduced him to some acquaintances from Rome, who seemed innocent enough. One was a fruit and veg supplier to a few of the capital’s restaurants, including La Lampara near Piazza del Popolo. They chatted a little about the following day’s game against Avellino. Rossi didn’t consider it anything too out of the ordinary. He played hard as usual, scored a brace in a 2-2 draw, and moved on to the next game.


How to follow Euro 2024 and Copa America on The Athletic


A few months later, police cars pulled into the Stadio Olimpico. They trundled along the running track before coming to a halt while Lazio’s game against AC Milan continued through a rain-streaked passenger side window. Six players were placed under arrest live on 90esimo Minuto, the Soccer Saturday of its day, as an investigation into match-fixing broke cover.

It led to the first relegation in Milan’s history. Lazio also followed them to Serie B. The Avellino-Perugia game in which Rossi scored came under scrutiny, too. Rossi always maintained his innocence. There were days during his ban — “a long, tormented, hated exile” — when he woke up hoping it was all a “hallucination”.

Outside of the Italian Football Federation’s (FIGC) own trial, Italy’s wider justice system found no crime had been committed in the Avellino-Perugia game and, as Rossi detailed in his biography, key witnesses gave false testimony and Massimo Cruciani, the fruit and veg salesman at the heart of the scandal, “confirmed my suspicions by admitting I was only dragged into it because I was a symbol”.

Rossi was 23 when he was banned. Fagioli is the same age now. His inclusion in Italy’s Euro 2024 squad was presented in some quarters of the media as a rebirth. But Fagioli didn’t see it that way. “My rebirth came seven months ago when they banned me,” he said. “That’s when I realised what I’d been through and went back to living a normal life.”


Nicolo played eight times for Juventus last season (Marco Bertorello/AFP via Getty Images)

In April last year, Juventus’ coach Massimiliano Allegri hooked Fagioli from a game against Sassuolo after he made a mistake that allowed Gregoire Defrel to score. The then-22-year-old’s emotions got the better of him and he burst into tears on the bench. But the tracks they left ran deeper than a scuffed clearance falling into the path of the Sassuolo forward.

“It wasn’t just because I had put my team in bother,” he reflected to Gazzetta dello Sport. “A black cloak came over me. Everything seemed negative. Everything turned dark.”

Fagioli was consumed by problems off the pitch and they were affecting his game. He was suffering from a gambling addiction.

“Boredom ruined my life,” he said. He didn’t know what to do in the downtime after training. “If you have no other hobbies, the abyss draws you in,” Fagioli explained.

In the deposition he gave to the FIGC as part of the plea bargain he entered, Fagioli recalled an Italy Under-21 training camp in Tirrenia, a seaside resort near Pisa. “It was (Milan and now Newcastle United midfielder, and fellow subject of this investigation into gambling activity Sandro) Tonali, a close friend of mine, who suggested I play on the illegal site Icebet,” he said.

“I happened to see him playing and asked him what he was doing. He told me I could play because there was no trace of the bets.”

Unlike Tonali, who will miss the Euros as he serves the remainder of a 10-month ban that expires at the end of August, Fagioli did not bet on his own team.

“I didn’t want to violate the principles I believe in,” he said. “I thought that if you play football and you gamble, and the two things don’t overlap, then it wasn’t bad. I didn’t want to damage the sport. I didn’t fix games.” Instead, he battled addiction. His debts to illegal sites spiralled to nearly €3million (£2.5m; $3.2m) and he was threatened with physical violence.


Sandro Tonali was also banned for 10 months by the Italian Football Federation (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

“A whirlwind slammed me up against a wall,” said Fagioli. “I had to grow up or become more responsible. I started therapy.” Fagioli has described the reckoning with addiction as a “liberation”. Juventus have given the midfielder their full support and reacted to his ban by extending his contract until 2028.

GO DEEPER

Spiralling debts and threats ‘to break your legs’: What Fagioli’s deposition tells us

He is still in recovery and has developed coping mechanisms. When the urge to bet resurfaces “I tame it by thinking about how much hurt it caused me”. He has taken up tennis and padel to combat boredom and uses his free time for sessions with his therapist and speaking events at schools.

The call-up to the national team was not, Spalletti insisted, a token gesture. “It was a football decision,” he said. “Fagioli has got quality, flair. He deserves a little understanding. He found himself in the grip of a difficult time and couldn’t defend himself from temptation.”

Rather than pick like-for-like players, Spalletti’s selection process has been guided by the desire to have as many different skill sets in defence, midfield and attack as possible to make the team flexible and unpredictable. Fagioli, for instance, is a No 10 who can play alongside Jorginho in midfield. “He’s a delight when the ball is at his feet,” Spalletti observed. “He sees things others don’t see.”

When the need to cut three players from his provisional squad came, Spalletti did not send Fagioli home. He thinks one of the nation’s brightest talents can be a difference-maker in Germany, as demonstrated by how much he used him in Italy’s warm-up games.

After giving Fagioli half an hour against Turkey, Spalletti started him in Italy’s 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

His freshness and eagerness to grasp this opportunity after so long on the sidelines could make him one of the revelations of the Euros. After all, Fagioli was the Serie A Young Player of the Year only a year ago. By the same token, his lack of match rhythm and desire to impress could lead him to overdo it.

Fagioli spent some of this week nursing muscle fatigue but he is where he wants to be. The black shroud has been shaken off and exchanged for a blue jersey.

“The last seven months have been agony. I counted the days,” he said. “But my life is here on these green pitches.”

GO DEEPER

Italy Euro 2024 squad guide: Trepidation for a team yet to be moulded in Luciano Spalletti’s image

(Top photo: Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Source link: Nicolo Fagioli's rebirth: From gambling ban to Italy recall for Euro 2024