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Tangled Web: Fuji-Servetto and Acqua&Sapone Close to Merger

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Gav_medium Gazzetta dello Sport reports today that Gianetti's Fuji-Servetto and Masciarelli's Acqua&Sapone are set to merge. Paolo Bettini will take over as manager of the new formation. According to Gazzetta, a verbal agreement exists to pursue the merger, but it is not yet finalized.

The three principals met in Chiasso, Switzerland, Saturday, to discuss the plan. Gazzetta reports that there were some disagreements at the Chiasso meeting, but they are described as "not serious." Palmiro Masciarelli, who currently manages Acqua&Sapone is prepared to step aside in Bettini's favor, and seems to be the strongest proponent of the idea. Mauro Gianetti is less enthusiastic, but the doping scandals of Leonardo Piepoli and Riccardo Riccò limit his options. Already, the grand tour organizers have signaled their reluctance to include Gainetti's new Fuji-Servetto in their races, despite the team's pro tour status. Gazzetta speculates the Fernando Matxin will also need to step back from his management role, if the team is to regain credibility.

Paolo Bettini would certainly have his work cut out for him in taking over the "Scandal Team" of Gianetti. The sponsors no doubt hope that the well-regarded former World Champion can open the doors that for now appear tightly closed. Bettini will reportedly meet with the Giro d'Italia organizers this week to sound them out on the possibility of an invite to their Centenary race. Bettini is well-regarded in Spain, and would likely find the Vuelta organizers open to his approach. But the gates to the Tour de France will almost certainly remain closed.

Though Bettini will face a difficult task in re-establishing the team's credibility, if such a thing is possible, taking on the management role will join him with several old friends. Both Luca Paolini and Stefano Garzelli are close friends with Bettini, and currently ride for Acqua&Sapone. Another long-time friend, Andrea Tonti, recently signed on to ride for Fuji-Servetto. Bettini told Gazzetta, "The alliance of the two... could give great satisfaction." He also said he would likely take an active role in the team. "I want to do the things that I know to do, like in races." So, "a captain, not a player," concludes Gazzetta.

As Gazzetta makes clear, the deal is not yet signed and sealed. The principal obstacle appears to be the question of ensuring that the team will be allowed to ride the Giro d'Italia, and perhaps also the Vuelta a España. The Italian races have long been open to Acqua&Sapone, so the new team should have a full schedule. But without the grand tours, they would remain distinctly second tier, which would no doubt disappoint the new sponsors. Indeed, it is not out of the question that the merger and management change are a consequence of demands made in the sponsorship agreement. Unfortunately, no details on those agreements are available. With Gianetti and Matxin at the helm, Fuji-Servetto is unlikely to enjoy the benefits of its pro tour license. Acqua&Sapone has spent the last two seasons left out of the Giro d'Italia. They would desperately like to come in from the cold. The addition of Paolo Bettini, well-liked in Italy, appears to solve these problems. At the same time, it will likely take a season or several before the memories of the team's past scandals are erased.