Arrigo Sacchi and Italian football’s ethical dilemma about foreign players

Arrigo Sacchi and Italian football’s ethical dilemma about foreign players

As featured on Guardian Sport

ARRIGO SACCHI INSISTS that his comments were misinterpreted and not racist, but many remain unconvinced. “Italian football is now without dignity or pride because it has too many foreigners playing in the youth teams,” the former Milan and Italy boss told Gazzetta dello Sport. “In our youth sides there are too many black players.”

At best, it was a clumsy choice of words from Arrigo Sacchi but, while others have perhaps been more politically correct in their statements, the issue of foreigners in the game on the peninsula has always been a divisive one. Twelve years ago this month, the appearance of Mauro Camoranesi in Italy’s line-up for a friendly against Portugal reopened a debate that has been regularly aired in Italy for decades. The winger, who played for Juventus at the time and was born in Argentina in 1976, was making his international debut and in turn becoming the first oriundo to play for the Azzurri for 40 years.

Oriundo is an Italian word that refers to an immigrant of native ancestry. Since Ermanno Aebi made his debut in a friendly with France in 1920, 39 other non-native footballers have represented Italy, amassing 321 caps, 96 goals and seven World Cup winners’ medals.

The practice has not always been welcomed, though, with many fans objecting to the idea of naturalised players who often have no personal links with the country pulling on the famous blue shirt. The oriundi question, which continues to divide Italy nearly a century after Aebi’s first appearance, is an issue that transcends football and speaks to grander ideals of nationhood and identity.

The Italian squad that lifted the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time in 1934 contained no fewer than five oriundi. Luis Monti, Raimundo Orsi, Enrique Guaita and Attilio Demaría were all born in Argentina, while midfielder Anfilogino Guarisi was born in Brazil, who he represented under the name Filó.

The 1934 triumph came at a time when Italy’s fascist leader Benito Mussolini was investing heavily in the game, and Il Duce’s fierce determination to demonstrate the country’s global strength and significance by winning the tournament on home soil was such that he permitted the use of foreign-born players.

At first glance, the inclusion of native South Americans in the squad appears antithetical to the fascist dogma of pure Italian nationalism, but Mussolini believed that their presence indicated a thriving diaspora and a powerful, colonial country that was able to summon talented footballers from the clutches of other nations.

Fans, too, were largely supportive, perhaps due to the side’s ultimate success but also because of the conscription laws of the time; as the team’s manager Vittorio Pozzo asserted: “If they can die for Italy, they can play football for Italy.”

Another reason why the oriundi practice was not considered overly controversial in the first half of the 20th century is to do with patterns of emigration. Large-scale exoduses from Italy occurred in roughly two waves, the first around the period of unification in 1861 and another in the early 1920s when Mussolini rose to power. Countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay were particularly popular destinations – there have been oriundi raised in Scotland, England and South Africa, but 36 of the 40 have originated from South America – and, with millions of Italians starting families abroad, it was only natural that some of the offspring would go on to become footballers.

Although these first-generation immigrants may not have experienced much contact with Italian land before representing the Azzurri, most were raised in a quintessentially Italian manner, speaking the language, eating the food and practicing the customs, and were in most cases deemed to be just as worthy of the national jersey as natives.

By the time the 1962 World Cup in Chile had reached its denouement, the tide of public opinion had well and truly turned. Since retaining their title in 1938, the Italians’ tournament record was thoroughly disappointing: they exited in the groups stages in 1950, 1954 and 1962, and failed to qualify in 1958.

Oriundi such as Amleto Frigani, Humberto Maschio and Juventus legend Omar Sívori were part of the national setup in this period of shortcoming and, while fans and the authorities alike recognised that it would be absurd to pin an entire country’s prolonged footballing underachievement on a few individuals, the prevailing feeling was that the increasing number of foreigners in Serie A was harming the Azzurri’s chances on the world stage. New legislation limited participation in the domestic leagues to those born on the peninsula and, after Angelo Sormani’s seventh and final cap in October 1963, it would be another four decades until a non-native played football for Italy again.

The backlash against the oriundi, however, was not solely because of on-field failings; after all, international football is not solely about success, but also identity and national representation. There was little doubt, for example, that Adnan Januzaj – rated as the best prospect in the world by Italy’s iconic pink-paged Gazzetto Dello Sport last year – would have improved England’s squad, but there was considerable unease among the nation’s football-following citizens at the thought of the Manchester United youngster appearing for a country he had no personal links with.

This idea of detachment and not belonging was the Italian people’s major grievance with the oriundi that ended their inclusion in Azzurri squads for almost two generations, and the objection has continued to be aired ever since the tradition was revived with Camoranesi in 2003. The winger, who was born in Argentina, qualified for Italy through a great-grandfather who had departed the Marche region of the country in 1873. He went on to win 55 caps and the 2006 World Cup but was never fully embraced in his adopted homeland.

The criticism began almost immediately, with the 30-year-old’s affirmation that he would be happy to play for Italy widely interpreted as a come-and-get-me plea to Argentina boss Marcelo Bielsa. Camoranesi was refreshingly honest when quizzed on his national identity, admitting that he considered himself Argentine and did not know the words to the Italian anthem, but this candour did not do much to endear him to football fans of the country he had chosen to represent.

For the player, a clear and understandable separation existed between his career and personal selfhood, but it was not so easy for ordinary Italians to make the distinction. Even acts as natural and innocent as speaking in Spanish to a TV camera immediately after Italy’s defeat of France in the World Cup final in Berlin confirmed to Italians that Camoranesi was not really one of their own.

Cesare Maldini, the former Italy defender and manager, categorically slammed the use of oriundi in a 2011 interview with Radio Incontro, saying that the recent resumption of the practice was a negative “return to the past” and witheringly referring to the new Italian international Thiago Motta as “the Brazilian”.

Since that 2003 friendly with Portugal in Genoa, foreign-born players have appeared for Italy on 107 occasions, and Maldini’s complaint is emblematic of the critics’ perception that the links between today’s oriundi and the Southern European state have grown increasingly tenuous: Amauri and Cristian Ledesma, for example, qualified for Italy via marriage, while Argentine pair Dani Osvaldo and Gabriel Paletta both, like Camoranesi, had Italian great-grandfathers. For Maldini and countless others, the use of these players is harming the authenticity of the national team and damaging the principal purpose of international football as a sporting vehicle to represent a country’s people.

Others, though, are more supportive. The oriundi are often the first to be scapegoated after an early tournament exit – Gianni Brera, the legendary Italian football writer, labelled them “lazy” after the 1962 World Cup disappointment – but, as many point out, there is nothing inherent to these players that makes them less passionate about achieving an Italian victory. Indeed, many natives have been condemned for lacking commitment to the cause, not least Mario Balotelli, who was heavily rebuked for a supposed lack of hunger and desire to play for the shirt after defeats to Costa Rica and Uruguay in Brazil last summer.

According to proponents, the existence of oriundi merely reflects the state of the globalised modern world. Advances in technology, transportation and communication have had an irrevocable effect on the planet, and the sheer amount of information available today makes moving to a foreign land easier than ever before. Over the coming decades, it is likely that more and more foreign-born footballers will be eligible to play for Italy through their ancestry, and the fact that future Italian internationals will not have been born on the peninsula is simply a present-day reality.

It is difficult not to sympathise with Paletta’s response to the media’s routine questioning of oriundi in an attempt to gauge whether or not they feel Italian. “I grew up in Argentina but I feel Italian when I think of my great-grandfather,” the Milan defender told the press. “He wanted his children to return to Calabria with some extra money in their pockets, so he could say he’d done what he set out to do. In a certain sense, wearing the [national team shirt] would complete his journey.”

Public opinion regarding the oriundi today tends to reflect wider views of the role of foreigners in Italian society. Lega Nord, the right-wing political party who support independence for Northern Italy, have spoken out against the likes of Motta, Osvaldo and Camoranesi’s presence in Azzurri selections, and many citizens’ opinions on oriundi are identical to their thoughts on immigration. If a foreign-born player has exceptional ability or can perform a role that natives are unable to, he should be permitted to play for the national side, but Italians should otherwise be given priority to protect the purity of the country’s football.

Others disagree, believing Italy should show itself to be an open, welcoming society in this globalised world by not only allowing but encouraging those who are legible to represent the Azzurri to do so regardless of their place of birth. According to this train of thought, rejecting the oriundi is akin to sending a message to the world that Italy is a parochial and insular country intolerant of difference.

With politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens all chiming in on the discussion over the years, the oriundi question is one that goes far beyond football. When Camoranesi stepped on to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris field in Genoa on a wintery night in February 2003, he was not just resurrecting a footballing tradition but also unwittingly reigniting the debate over what type of country Italy wants to be.

By Greg Lea. Follow @GregLeaFootball

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