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What’s wrong with Italy?

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Goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon, reacts at the Italian Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Livorno, at the Olympic Stadium in Turin, Italy, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)

When the Costa Concordia cruise ship went down just off the island of Giglio in January, several commentators took the occasion to use the shipwreck as a symbol for everything that was wrong with the country. And why not? 

The captain of the Concordia, Francesco Schettino, summed up everyone’s worst image of an Italian male: well-tanned, fun-loving with a weakness for young women, a bit reckless,  not all that competent -- and a coward, to top it all off. But it’s much more likely that the disaster was an isolated incident, and that Schettino is more the exception than the rule in Italy

Unfortunately, the man who symbolizes everything that’s wrong with Italy right now looks like a tremendously more noble human being than the ill-fated captain of the Costa Concordia. He is nothing less than captain of the national soccer team, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

“Gigi” Buffon, who plays at Juventus, is one of the greatest goalies in the world, and certainly gives the impression of being a “persona per bene,” a very decent human being. But there’s the rub, and that’s why Buffon could pose as the poster-boy for all that’s wrong with this country: good, decent people who lack basic honesty.

At first glance, Buffon’s blunder may not seem earthshaking. In Italy, soccer is not a matter of life and death. As the saying goes, "it’s much more important than that." It happened during one of the most crucial matches of the season. 

Juventus played Milan on Saturday night. With Milan leading 1-0 in the first half, Buffon made a spectacular goal-line save. But on the rebound, Milan’s Sulley Muntari clearly headed the ball beyond the line and into the goal before Buffon scooped it out. Everyone (except the referee, it appears) knew it was a goal, and the replay showed that without a doubt.

In all probability, a 2-0 lead would have changed the outcome of the game, which ended up 1-1.Buffon, who has had an almost stellar reputation in his long career, could have commented on the incident by saying that Juve got lucky or that they should start using instant replay in Italian soccer, or perhaps something even more high-minded.

Instead, he said he would not have helped the referee had he been asked if the ball had gone in or not. Translated, he would have lied. And that is the problem with Italy today. 

Scamming seems to be a major league sport here, but everyone gets to play. It’s not only the outrageous cases of fraud, of people getting disability pensions, and then working as instructors at gyms, or those with state jobs who never have to show up to work.

As the new government of Prime Minister Mario Monti knows all too well, those are problems, but the much bigger challenge is finding all those “good, decent people” who aren’t paying the taxes they should, either on their personal income or their business.(Of course, there are multiple reasons Italians don’t pay their taxes, starting with the exorbitant rates and the fact they don’t get much bang for the buck. But that’s another story.)

Italian tax police have begun going after the owners of big luxury cars who – according to their tax records – have the income of paupers. Something is drastically wrong. And it’s not just taxes.

Take the doctor who gets a salary from the public health system, but then tells patients to come see him in his private office if they want to avoid the line. Sorry, go public or go private. The doctor gets paid twice and the public – at least those who can afford it – pays twice.

Basic honesty means individuals should pay taxes. Basic honesty means merchants should leave receipts. Surprise, surprise, but doesn’t happen with great regularity here. The situation may not be as bad as Greece, but we’re in the same neighborhood.   

The greatest virtue in Italy is to be “furbo,” or shrewd, which is great, as long as it means sharp and thinking out of the box. But when it means cunning and dishonest – which is too often the case, as we’ve seen with Buffon – it’s disastrous.

Unfortunately, being honest in this country too often means the same thing as being stupid. As long as that’s the case, Italy will continue to have major problems, and not just cruise ships that run ashore.