Conte’s new foreign-born players could be Italy’s next scapegoats

In 1931, Azzurri player Renato Cesarini pushed a teammate aside, snatched the ball and drove it home, netting a winner in the final minutes. The hero lives on in the zona Cesarini, a phrase used to describe goals scored shortly before the whistle, yet it’s not hard to imagine that, should a Cesarini pull the same trick today, he’d be condemned. He’d be shouted down in Italy’s newspapers; threatened on social media. Former managers would take to the talk shows, outlining how this one move encapsulates all that is wrong with Italy. Because, you see, Cesarini was an Oriundo, while the player he shoved? Just your basic Italian.

Oriundi are those with Italian ancestry who were born elsewhere. In the eyes of FIFA, a player simply needs to have lived continuously in the country he wishes to play for for at least five years after the age of 18. A player is also eligible, without residency, if his parent or grandparent was born in that country. Italy has been taking advantage of these types of individuals before such rules even existed – Cesarini, for example, played for both Argentina and Italy. Mauro Camoranesi was an integral part of the Azzurri squad that last lifted the World Cup, while Thiago Motta was – somewhat oddly – favored by Cesare Prandelli for Euro 2012. And of course, Giuseppe Rossi created quite a stir when he chose Italy over the United States.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Antonio Conte called up two oriundi to the current Italy side: Éder, born in Brazil and now scoring for Sampdoria, and Franco Vázquez, the Argentina-born midfielder who’s been lighting up the pitch for Palermo. Although neither are likely to claim starting roles, both provide valuable options to Conte. Vázquez fits the coach’s 3-5-2 system and has a keen eye for both a pass and the goal. Éder, meanwhile, is both playing and scoring (even scoring for Italy, come to that), which is more than can be said for Alessio Cerci, or even Ciro Immobile.

Franco Vázquez and Éder training with Italy squad (Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

Franco Vázquez and Éder training with Italy squad (Claudio Villa/Getty Images)

A reasonable person might think Conte is just doing his best to get the four-time World Cup winners back into the world’s elite. The Azzurri did manage to finish runners-up in the last European Championships, but they were embarrassed by Spain in the final, then went on to crash out at the World Cup group stage for the second time in a row. The team is unbeaten in Euro 2016 qualifying, but it isn’t exactly making opponents tremble in fear – that near-draw to Azerbaijan is more likely making them laugh – so it makes sense that Conte would want to bring in some fresh blood.

And, by his own admission, he has few places to mine for new talent. Shortly after the new season started, Conte made it clear he was annoyed with the lack of Italians playing in Serie A, saying he’d seen just 14 in three matches. In fact, Serie A is the worst of the top five leagues at producing club-trained talent, which naturally leads to fewer Italians on the pitch. Few of the best leave home as well, with just five players on the most recent squad playing outside the peninsula.

Conte’s doing his best with what’s available – provided they fit into his fairly rigid system, of course. Others, however, feel it’s best to keep the foreigners out of the Azzurri. Roberto Mancini, a former Italy international who now coaches Inter, believes the use of oriundi holds back homegrown talent painstakingly developed by Italian clubs. What Mancini didn’t offer, however, was a list of these players supposedly passed over for a chance at the national team. Perhaps he’s thinking of Inter defenders Danilo D’Ambrosio or Davide Santon, but Italy isn’t hurting at the back. It’s up top that the team needs reinforcement, and like so many others in Serie A, Inter isn’t offering Italians a chance to put the ball in the back of the net.

Despite recent racist rumblings in Italy, such as Italian soccer federation president Carlo Tavecchio describing African players as banana-eaters, few have taken Mancini’s side. Then again, Italy is currently even on points with Croatia for the top spot in Group H. It’s what might happen if the Azzurri stumble, whether in qualifying or next year in France, that is the worry.

Italy has been here before. And, sadly, Italy loves a scapegoat. In 1962, the Azzurri faced hosts Chile in one of the most appalling World Cup matches of all time. Both sides kicked, shoved and punched their way through the game, and in the end, Italy lost. While the referee was as much to blame as anyone, in the end it was the oriundi, four of whom were included in the squad, that suffered. Blame was placed on the “hostile atmosphere” created by those four South American-born players, players the Chileans viewed as traitors. The oriundi were finished. After defeat to North Korea in 1966, foreigners were banned from the Italian leagues altogether, a ban that lasted until 1980. In 2003, Camoranesi became the first foreign-born player to represent Italy in 40 years.

The scapegoating, though, lives on. Mario Balotelli, a native-born Italian who had the temerity to be born black, is forced to endure racist comments and chants from his own supporters when playing in the Azzurri shirt. No surprise, then, that it was he that took much of the blame for Italy’s early exit from the 2014 World Cup. Even Italy captain Gigi Buffon got in on the act, indirectly accusing Balotelli of laziness and a lack of respect.

It makes perfect sense for Antonio Conte to call up the most in-form players available for the Azzurri, even if they happen to have been born elsewhere. But if the team fails, in the long-term, to get results, or fails to live up to what Italians see as its potential, it’s likely the blame could land on those perceived as un-Italian. A poor touch, a badly-aimed shot, a whiff of laziness, and it’s the foreigners – either those in the shirt, or those crowding Italians out from Serie A teams – who will feel the wrath of the media and fans. We’ve been here before, after all.