LESS THAN a week after winning the World Cup, Italy mourned the biggest blow to national soccer in decades yesterday after top clubs were ousted from the elite league for match-fixing.
An Italian sports tribunal delivered the verdicts late on Friday, punishing Italy's most successful team Juventus with relegation to Italy's second-tier Serie B along with Fiorentina and Lazio.
The fourth club involved, AC Milan, owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, was also heavily penalised, starting next season's Serie A campaign minus 15 points.
"To Hell", screamed a front-page column in Italy's leading newspaper Corriere della Sera. It counted 120 hours from Italy's World Cup win to the moment when "two generations of soccer establishment were wiped out".
As teams prepared their appeals, the country braced for a likely exodus of prized players such as World Cup captain Fabio Cannavaro and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
"This sentence on soccer strikes at nearly 20 million fans," said Berlusconi's spokesman, Paolo Bonaiuti. "Our best players will be forced to play abroad. Well done. Justice served."
Even Italy's Justice Minister Clemente Mastella weighed in against the verdict, saying it mostly punished fans.
"At least I'm not the 'sports' justice minister. I can't agree with the sentence," Mastella said. "I don't believe that the whole system is rotten. There are some amputations that need to be made but an Italian soccer that wins the World Cup frankly can't be great abroad and less than that at home."
Many fans and officials, however, said rough justice was needed to purge the sport of chronic corruption. Prime Minister Romano Prodi said that those guilty "have to pay, even if we are world champions".
The scandal broke in May with the publication of intercepted telephone conversations between a former Juventus official and Italian soccer authorities discussing refereeing appointments.
As well as the clubs, the tribunal barred a number of club officials from the game for varying periods. Former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi, who was at the centre of the scandal, was banned for five years and ex-Federation president Franco Carraro for four-and-a-half years.
Moggi said there had been no wrongdoing. "No match was fixed, no referee was pressured," Moggi was widely quoted as saying by the Italian media yesterday.
The demotion of Juventus, Lazio and Fiorentina is certain to prompt a transfer merry-go-round across Europe.
Juventus had eight players involved in the World Cup final and few, if any, will be expected to stay with the Turin club and start next season in Serie B.
Real Madrid, whose new coach Fabio Capello guided Juventus to the two championships they were stripped of on Friday, have made no secret of their interest in picking up Cannavaro and fellow Juventus player Brazilian midfielder Emerson.
The teams are expected to present their appeals in the coming days. The process has to be hurried so that it can be completed by July 25 - the UEFA deadline for the Italian football federation to submit their list of teams for next season's Champions League.