Conspiracy theories and unbearable atmosphere: Italian league final has been unwatchable show

Orazio Cauchi
Staff Writer
2022-06-18 09:01
Credit: Luca Baraldi: Zumapress Christos Stavropoulos: Zumapress/Scanpix
Credit Luca Baraldi: Zumapress Christos Stavropoulos: Zumapress/Scanpix

On the court, the Italian league finals between Virtus Bologna and Armani Exchange Milan have been exactly what they were supposed to be: an intense battle between two great teams.

Milan stole Game 1 in Bologna and immediately got an edge in the series. They went to Bologna for Game 5 with the first match point of the series with a 3-1 lead, but Virtus reacted and extended the series for at least another game. 

The team coached by Sergio Scariolo won with the final score of 84-78 and often looked in control during the game, with Jaiteh, 17 points, and Shengelia, 15 points, sharing most of the offensive load. 

3-pointers this season

Points made: 9,0
Accuracy: 35,0%
Place in standings: 8
Record max: 14
Record min: 3
Most made 3FGs: Devon Hall

But despite the game being entertaining, once again, the atmosphere on and off the court was almost unbearable at times. Multiple technical fouls were awarded, players were shouting at the referees most of the time, and even in the stands and courtside, the behavior of the fans wasn't exactly blameless.

The security service had to intervene on multiple occasions, sources have told BasketNews, to prevent fights and tense situations.

Kyle Hines' family members, who attended the game, were berated by a Virtus Bologna supporter. Only with the help of other people close to the scene and the security service's intervention a fight was avoided, a source told BasketNews. 

The fact that the series could have turned into an ugly show outside of the court was pretty evident from the start. Luca Baraldi, the CEO of Virtus Bologna, introduced the series fueling the fans' doubts about the referees' choice for Game 1. 

'I've noticed concern from our fans for the referees on social media. For sure, the referees always do their job in good faith, but these games are not easy ones to handle", Baraldi said to TRC right before Game 1 of the series. 

"But they have to demonstrate their value since in the last few weeks there've been some controversies on this matter," the CEO of Virtus Bologna added. "As a basketball movement, we're becoming very Milan-centered. The new head coach of the national team was announced in Milan, and the presentation of the finals was made in Milan too". 

With these seeds of the doubts already planted before the beginning of the series, it was just a matter of time before the situation would get worse. 

And that's exactly what happened. Before Game 5, Luca Baraldi spoke to Il Corriere Dello Sport and stated that Virtus, down 3-1 in the series, was ready to fight against everyone and everything. 

"Now we'll need to fight against all the events, inside and outside of the court," Baraldi stated. "Against everyone and everything, we have to be psychologically ready and don't get nervous by some situations that we didn't appreciate." 

Once again, suspects and doubts were thrown into the mix to inflame the situation even more. Some Virtus Bologna fans even claimed that in Game 4, Boris Rhyzyk, the Ukrainian referee that the Italian federation invited to work in our country during the playoffs, had cheered after a Shavon Shields' three-pointer.

Of course, nothing like that had happened. Rhyzyk was only notifying the table with his fists closed. Still, with the typical Italian conspiracy theory in place, even one of the most respected referees in Europe immediately became a suspect figure.

With this kind of atmosphere, it was clear that all hell was about to break loose. Right after Virtus Bologna's win in Game 5, Virtus' owner Massimo Zanetti gave a very short interview to TRC. It lasted less than two minutes, but it was enough to generate pure chaos. 

"Today, we showed who we are, we played with great pride," Zanetti said. "We are united against everyone. Tonight we won despite the referees. It's time to stop this psychological advantage to Milan and Messina!"

Zanetti looked particularly angry as he screamed when he mentioned Messina's name, a reaction that was way out of the line.

The owner of Virtus Bologna is a very passionate man, but those types of reactions cannot be acceptable from someone who has an official role inside a club, and they only do further damage to a situation that was already particularly tense. 

While Milan hasn't been the main protagonist of this situation, they didn't help deescalate the tension inside the series either. Messina has been very confrontational to the referees throughout the series, often complaining, sometimes with poor manners.

Sure, he's not the only coach to do something like that, but sometimes it does feel like he gets a free pass because his name is Ettore Messina. Right after Game 5, the coach of Armani Exchange went to the press conference room, but he didn't have a real press conference.

He came in, gave a brief statement saying that the referees decided the game, and left the room, no questions were asked because it was clear that he wasn't going to answer any of them. 

"I think that the technical foul awarded to one of our players when there were only two minutes and a half left in the game was the turning point of the game," coach Messina said after the game.

"I saw a difference in judgment compared to what a Virtus Bologna player did before, he complained and confronted the referee face to face after the first technical foul, but he didn't get a second one. We take note of that, and we'll see you again in Milan for Game 6."

Once again, the referees are at the center of the attention with no real game analysis. 

The day after Game 5 was the day of the official notes. On Friday afternoon, Armani Exchange Milan posted an official note on their social media profiles, condemning the words used by Massimo Zanetti after Game 5. 

"Armani Exchange Milan declares itself astonished and indignant at the words, insinuations, and tone used by the owner of Virtus Bologna. Olimpia Milano and its owners are known throughout Europe for fairness and style," the Italian club stated in their note.

"Unfortunately, this is not the first time Massimo Zanetti has indulged in gratuitous and offensive remarks against our club and its members. Therefore, Olimpia Milano calls on the Federation to activate the federal prosecutor's office to see if there's an opportunity for sanctioning measures against Virtus and its ownership". 

A few hours later, Virtus Bologna answered with its own statement, saying that the words of Massimo Zanetti weren't offensive to Milan. 

"The statements made by Mr.Zanetti right after the end of Game 5 had no offensive content against Milan or its players, let alone its ownership, for which Mr.Zanetti has often expressed appreciation and respect", Virtus Bologna stated. 

Even the president of Legabasket, the association of the Serie A clubs, was forced to release an official note to invite both teams to fully focus on the court, leaving all kinds of controversies aside. 

On Saturday evening, Armani Exchange Milan will have the chance to close the series at home and win the Italian title. On the other hand, Virtus Bologna will try its best to force the series to Game 7.

There's no doubt that it will be an exciting game, but there are also very few doubts that the controversies and the tensions will be among the main protagonists of the game. 

What was supposed to be a great commercial for the entire Italian basketball movement quickly turned into a war of words and a conspiracy theory fair, where there's very little interest in the performances of great players like Nicolo Melli, Toko Shengelia, Milos Teodosic, Sergio Rodriguez, and others.

There's an insane level of scrutiny for every single decision made by the referees, and everything can quickly escalate into a drama. 

For this reason, both teams have already lost this series. This final could never have been a showcase for the Italian basketball movement simply because Armani Exchange Milan and Virtus Bologna are two worlds on their own.

They can spend much more than any other team in the league, they have two wealthy owners who can invest at will and are the only ones able to sustain a season in EuroLeague.

They're not really interested in being driving forces for the movement but more in cementing their positions among the European elite of basketball. There's nothing wrong with a rivalry, Europe is full of them.

But it's sad when jealousy and posturing overshadow what should always be at the center of attention: basketball. 


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