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Fraud probe targets Serie A, B, €2.5 Billion debt


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Fraud probe targets Italian soccer

Thursday, February 26, 2004 Posted: 1622 GMT (12:22 AM HKT)

ROME, Italy (Reuters) -- Italian magistrates ordered searches of all Serie A and B soccer clubs on Thursday as part of an investigation into suspected accounting fraud in the country's national sport, judicial sources said.

Finance police also searched the offices of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and the body that runs the Italian league, football officials said.

Italian teams, which are struggling with record debts and heavy losses, have come under increasing legal scrutiny following allegations of balance sheet malpractice and transfer irregularities.

Thursday's search warrants were issued by two groups of Rome prosecutors who are looking into charges of accounting cover-ups and abuse of office in Italy's top two professional leagues -- Serie A and B.

The probe traces its roots back to allegations last summer that four clubs, including Serie A team AS Roma, used fraudulent bank guarantees to win admission to the current league season.

All Italian clubs have to present evidence of sound finances to Covisoc, the sport's financial regulator, before their registration for the season is approved.

The clubs have denied wrongdoing.

Financial woes

A recent survey by financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore showed Serie A posted a combined operating loss of 948 million euros ($1.18 billion) last season with wages gobbling up 85 percent of revenue. Debts soared 41 percent to 2.5 billion euros.

In 2002 one of the nation's top sides, Florence's Fiorentina, went bankrupt and was forced out of the top flight.

Other clubs could sink without rapid injections of funds as some of the sports' top backers have financial headaches.

Serie A team Parma was shaken when its owner, multinational food company Parmalat, was forced into insolvency in December following a multibillion-euro accounting scandal.

Another Serie A team, Lazio, is also struggling following the collapse in 2002 of its owner, food group Cirio.

Magistrates' investigating the Cirio scandal are looking into accusations that money was illegally moved from the food group into Lazio, and that transfer fees for Lazio players may have been inflated.

Financial police on Wednesday interviewed Italy defender Alessandro Nesta as part of their investigation. Nesta, who used to play for Lazio before being sold to European champions AC Milan, has denied any wrongdoing.

AC Milan is owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Thursday's swoop was not connected to the Lazio probe.

Three Italian soccer teams are quoted on the Milan bourse. Shares in Lazio were down 9.6 percent at 2.29 euros at 1320 GMT while shares in Juventus were off 1.51 percent at 1.63 euros.

Shares in AS Roma were suspended earlier in the day pending a statement, following media speculation that a Russian company was poised to buy the 2001 Italian champions.

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