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How the Football Bond Spans the Atlantic

The history and politics of the trans-Atlantic football connection of Argentina and Italy

Firstpost print Edition

Unlike Spain and Portugal, whose influence in South America is the result of colonisation, Italian migrants willingly left for the shores of Argentina where they were welcomed with open arms, so much so that Argentines today are often referred to as “Italians who happen to speak Spanish”.

After gaining autonomy from Spain at the beginning of the 19th century Argentina adopted an open immigration policy. The country was sparsely populated, and became even more so because of the Argentine War of Independence as well a series of civil wars through the 19th century.

Immigration was also seen as an opportunity to bring people from more enlightened countries to help transform Argentina into a modern society. Article 25 of the 1853 Constitution stated that the government would encourage European immigration, and would not “restrict, limit or burden those who come with the goal of working the land, improving the industries and teach the sciences and the arts” with taxes.

Meanwhile, a recently unified Italy was struggling with unemployment and overpopulation. Argentina with its promise of lower taxes, better wages and government programmes aimed at promoting social mobility became an alluring destination. A bigger wave of immigrants arrived in the lead up to the World War I to escape the political instability plaguing Italy.

Today, an estimated 25 million Argentines, more than 60% of the population, have Italian blood. Among them is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known to the world as Pope Francis, whose father left Italy in 1929 to escape the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini.

Embarrassed to have so many Italians escape the country, Mussolini twisted the narrative to suit his fascist ends and declared Italian emigrants to be Italiani all’estero (Italians abroad), depicting them as agents of a peaceful colonisation of the Americas. Since then, a tug-of-war for football talent has ensued between the players’ adopted country and the ones their ancestors left all those years ago.

By the time of the second World Cup in 1934, numerous footballers with Italian roots had migrated back to their country of origin in search of better professional opportunities (such players are collectively called oriundi). Indeed, the 1934 Italian World Cup winning team had five oriundi, including Raimundo Orsi who scored a crucial late equaliser in the final against Czechoslovakia.

Interestingly, Orsi had also won the Olympic silver medal with Argentina in the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.

However, the great Alfredo Di Stefano and the greatest of them all, Lionel Messi, opted to play for Argentina despite being eligible to play for Italy. The oriundi question has become prickly in recent years, as Italy has shifted to the political right. The case hasn’t been helped by players like Mauro Camoranesi — who play a pivotal role in Italy’s 2006 World Cup win —openly saying that their move back to Italy was professionally motivated and not born out of love for the country of their forefathers.

The fact that he didn’t know the words of the Italian national anthem didn’t endear him to the fans either. On the other side of the world, he was roundly criticised by the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Diego Simeone and other prominent former footballers from Argentina for not representing the Albiceleste.

Recently, right-wing parties in Italy have spoken out against the presence of ‘foreigners’ like Thiago Motta and Dani Osvaldo (both oriundi) in the national team. Italy’s interior minister and leader of right-wing political party Lega Nor, Matteo Salvini used Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup exit to justify his nationalist and anti-immigration stance. He tweeted right after the second leg stalemate against Sweden that there were too many foreigners on the field, from the youth set-up to Serie A with a hashtag ‘Stop Invasione’.

Incidentally, Salvini was the one who turned away a boatload of 600,000 African refugees, which attracted international condemnation but also boosted his approval ratings. The politician was also involved in a public argument with Mario Balotelli, the most prominent black player to ever appear for the Azzurri, about race. Thus the aversion is not limited to South Americans. Former national team manager Arrigo Sacchi said that Italian football was without dignity because it had “too many black players” in the youth teams.

The winds of right-wing nationalism are shaking the centuries old bond that exists between Italian and Argentinean football. As politicians turn more populist and footballers more opportunistic, things are likely to get worse.

The thing to consider of course is: Messi is eligible to play for Italy thanks to his great-grandfather who moved from Recanti to Rosario in 1883. If he were to express a desire to don the Azzurri jersey, what would be the more populist move for the right-wing parties? Staunch opposition for the reasons mentioned above, or a warm embrace because, well, it’s Messi.

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