Then things took a not unexpected turn. A magistrate launched an investigation into the grant of construction contracts to firms that some suspect of being linked to the Camorra, Naples's Mafialike criminal society. As one expert on organized crime told me, "Where you have construction in this country, you have the Mafia."
In Palermo, work on the stadium stopped when several laborers were killed in an accident. Renovations there had no sooner resumed than workers began to die at other sites. Labor unions have protested that safety procedures are being ignored in the rush to finish before the opening ceremonies. The current death toll stands at 25.
In the initial plans for Rome, urban designers envisioned a rail line whisking fans from Fiumicino airport to the Stadio Olimpico or the central train station. A cab driver's union killed that idea. There will be a high-speed train, but it will dump passengers at Ostiense station, in southwest Rome near the Protestant Cemetery, 4� miles from the stadium.
While this project may sound like the World Cup's ultimate boondoggle, that dubious honor belongs to the Stadio Olimpico. The original proposal was to build a new stadium. When that proved unfeasible, it was decided to renovate the present structure, at a cost of $65.6 million. Then mass insanity—or insatiable greed—set in. As the Italian Business Review summed up the situation, the people overseeing the renovation behaved like "a wife who is playing around with rebuilding her house. First, they thought of something they forgot. Then two weeks later, they remembered something else. Finally, they decided to do all the things they'd always wanted to do, because the husband is going to have to pay for it anyway." To complicate matters even further, environmentalists protested that the stadium's new roof, which bristles with girders, ruined the view of Monte Mario. Local residents dubbed it "the crown of thorns."
The stadium renovation will wind up costing $139.4 million—the same amount it took to build a completely new stadium in Turin. To recoup a portion of this enormous hemorrhage of cash, the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) struck a deal with an Italian landscaping company. Following the final at Stadio Olimpico, the firm will tear up the turf and market it in chunks, like pieces of the Berlin Wall. They hope to make $5.8 million, 30% of which will flow to CONI.
On this balmy Sunday afternoon, droves of Romans decided to do as I was doing-cool down after the derby by going over to the Stadio Olimpico to watch the workers wrestle things into shape for Il Mondiale. From what I had read, construction crews were on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But what I found was a stadium shrouded in silence.
I asked a few people if they thought the stadium would be ready in time, and they laughed. One said, "It better be." Then they did what comes naturally to most Italians: They started kicking balls around. By the time I left, the Foro Italico resembled a hall of mirrors, with impromptu soccer games going on in every corner, as far as the eye could see.
When I described to Paddy Agnew, an Irish journalist and soccer expert, what I had seen at the Stadio Olimpico, we both had a good laugh. Agnew is an old friend, and, like me, he has lived in Rome long enough not to be surprised by anything.
The Azzurri, he told me, intended to go into monkish retreat at their training camp before the start of Il Mondiale. According to team physician Leonardo Vecchiet, the regimen will include plenty of pasta and no sex for all but two days during the three weeks leading up to the kick-off and throughout the monthlong tournament. Meanwhile, Joseph Blatter, secretary-general of FIFA, has given his authorization for referees to have sex during the World Cup, presumably between games. The hope is to keep the players focused and the refs relaxed.
One of the three teams the Azzurri will face in the first round is the U.S. Although many consider the U.S. the weakest team in the field, Agnew said he didn't expect its match with Italy, on June 14 in Rome, to be a blowout. "It'll probably be close," he said. "The Azzurri don't believe in doing anything more than they have to."