ROME: The chairman of Juventus, Italy's most successful football team, denied on Thursday that the club was knowingly involved in a ticket touting scheme allegedly operated by the powerful 'Ndrangheta mafia.
Andrea Agnelli told parliament's antimafia commission that although he had met an alleged mobster on up to four occasions, it had always been as part of regular meetings with supporters' associations and never one-on-one encounters.
"I never met Rocco Dominello on his own," Agnelli told the commission, referring to a man standing trial alongside his father Saverio on charges of mafia association and attempted murder.
Saverio told a court in March he had once been a member of the Calabrian-based 'Ndrangheta, but said his son had not been involved in his criminal activities and had simply been a committed Juventus fan who had helped distribute match tickets.
Rocco Dominello has denied any wrongdoing.
Investigators are looking into accusations that Juventus handed out tickets to groups of hardcore fans, known as ultras, as a way of buying the peace and preventing violence or racial abuse in the stands that might result in fines or docked points.
Agnelli said he had met representatives of the ultras at the start of every season "so that this particularly heated part of the fan base did not feel discriminated against, which might have created problems of public order".
He added: "I have never received threats from the ultras and never thought that Dominello was a (mafia) operator."
Police believe that in 2013, the Dominello family decided to create a new ultra group with an eye to getting their hands on precious Juventus tickets.
Prosecutors believe that Juventus supplied season tickets to various ultra gangs, which were then sold on for a profit.
Agnelli acknowledged that the club did have a problem with ticket touting, but said this was inevitable given the relatively small size of the Juventus stadium in Turin, which holds 41,000 people.
"Touting? We were tripped up by having to manage a stadium that is too small for us, which is sold out every weekend," he said. Juventus is the most popular club in Italy, with a fanbase that stretches across the country.
It is also the most successful club. On Wednesday it won Italy's domestic cup for a record 12th time and is on the verge of winning a sixth successive Serie A championship. It faces Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Cardiff on June 3.
Underlining the problem of touting, Agnelli said tickets for the Cardiff game were being handled by Europe's football body UEFA, with touts asking for up to 5,000 euros for a single seat.
"Criminals gravitate towards events where supply is always far inferior to demand."
Italy's football federation has opened its own investigation into Juventus's ticketing operations and the allegations of possible mafia collusion.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Hugh Lawson)