Italian tango: tracing the roots of Argentine footballers in Italy
We have come across quite a few footballers having dual citizenship and then opting to play for different countries in their younger days and when they grow up. The most frequent of such migrant stories are the influence of Argentine flavour on the Italian football. This article explores the century old connection and how that has shaped up football across continents. This article was first published in ‘Tiro: A football odyssey from Amazon to Alps’ , Rattis Books, UK, June 2016.
Migration has been quite common among performing artists since the late nineteenth century. In fact, mobility and traveling across continents were central to the livelihood of musicians, singers, dancers and theatre artists. Sportspersons also followed the same trend and matched such popular entertainment workers to become migrant labour. Travelling across the oceans and getting featured in cross-continental tournaments/events became quite common for the pilgrims, boxers and rowers since the mid-nineteenth century. British jockeys and English cricket teams also explored the option of globetrotting for worldwide recognition and earning a fortune. Since Argentina won independence from Spain in 1816, numerous waves of refugees disembarked from the boot-shaped nation. Football migrants can be traced back to two major chains – one connecting parts of Latin America and Southern Europe, and the second linking Africa with colonial European cities. More than six million Europeans settled in Argentina between 1869 and 1914, (58 per cent of the country’s population) were born outside the country or were born to such émigrés. Italians were the most in number by far – two million between 1876 and World War I. Such mass migration laid the foundation for the mobility of footballers across two nations.
From early to mid-twentieth century, when citizenship laws were not that stringent, many a footballer from Argentina opted for the ‘straddling’ strategy – a stance somewhere between settling and sojourning. They went to Italy, a place they found very similar to home in terms of culture, food and language, to pursue their career but maintained a foothold back home as well. On the other hand, Italians migrating to Argentina also did not give up on the hope of the revival of political and economic stability in their native country and thus retained their Italian citizenship. Thus, the Italian word ‘Oriundo’, which refers to an immigrant of native ancestry, came into existence.
These players were not only football migrants; they displayed dual identities (or a lack of that) representing the linkage between the cultures of two societies that were thousands of miles apart. These players were often influenced by their friends or social networks to choose the place they wanted to move in. Raimundo Bibiani ‘Mumo’ Orsi was a great Argentine footballer of his generation, but he also held the distinction of scoring in the final of the triumphant World Cup campaign of 1934 for Gli Azzurri. Orsi had convinced Renato Cesarini to join Juventus from the alleys of Buenos Aires. Guillermo Stábile another stalwart of the 1920s and 1930s had encouraged a number of friends to come to Italy, especially to Genoa, the club he first arrived at. Besides players and colleagues, potential employers used to recruit players after watching them play briefly en route to their official tours or vacations in Latin America. Although many of the immigrants who eventually went on to represent Italy may not have visited Italy before, most were brought up in a typically Italian manner, speaking the language, eating the food and practicing the customs, and were in most cases thought to be just as worthy of the national jersey as natives.
The 1934 Italian squad that won the Jules Rimet trophy for the first time had as many as four Argentina-born ‘Oriundi’ – Luis Monti, Orsi, Enrique Guaita and Attilio Demaria. Their inclusion was heavily influenced by Italy’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was heavily investing in football at that time and was instrumental in hosting the mega event on home soil. He could not let go of this opportunity to win their maiden World Cup in order to demonstrate the country’s strength globally. Hence, he relaxed all the rules in the football federation and permitted the foreign-born players to represent Italy. This even irked his supporters as inclusion of Latin Americans in the national team seemed to be in contrast to the fascist doctrine of pure Italian nationalism. However, Mussolini insisted that it symbolised a blossoming movement and a prevailing colonial country that was able to muster talented footballers from the clutches of other nations. The national team’s manager, Vittorio Pozzo also saw nothing wrong in the policy in the backdrop of con-scription laws of the time during the wars: ‘If they can die for Italy, they can play football for Italy.’
If they can die for Italy, they can play football for Italy.
After World War II, Argentine footballers continued to migrate to Europe, but they diversified more based on economic trends and policies of the sports federations. On the other hand, with millions of Italians starting families abroad, it was only natural that some of the offsprings would go on to become footballers. As the regulations on non-national footballers in domestic football got more stringent 1947 onwards, and restrictions tightened on foreign players in 1966, transatlantic immigrations decreased significantly in numbers. However, Italy and Argentina still maintained a strong bond. In spite of the vast geographical distance between the two countries, it is often said that ‘Argentines are Italians who happen to speak Spanish‘. It appears that every other person in the Latin American nation has an Italian surname, and those who do not, must have a relative in Genoa, Sicily, Friuli or thereabout. There are about 1.5 million Italian speakers in Argentina, one of the largest concentrations outside Italy. These Italian progenies proudly refer to themselves as ‘Tanos’, Lunfardo slang for ‘Italianos’.
However, things changed over the years. By the 1962 World Cup in Chile, the public sentiment had well and truly turned in Italy. And there was reason for that – since retaining their World Cup in 1938, Italy had a torrid time at the biggest stage of world football. The Azzurris exited from the group stages in 1950, 1954 and 1962, and even failed to qualify for the big stage in 1958.
‘Oriundi’ from Argentine origin like Humberto Maschio and Juventus legend, Omar Sivori were key players in the Italian national team during this horrid time. Although everyone knew that it would be foolish to attribute an entire country’s long-drawn-out football underachievement on a few individuals, the federation gave in to the increasing pressure. They had to acknowledge that the increasing number of foreigners, especially Argentines, in Serie A was damaging the growth of local Azzurris, which was causing damage the national team’s chances at the world stage.
Stricter rules soon started limiting the participation of foreign-born players in the domestic leagues in Europe. Contact persons who used to help in player migration from Argentina started getting more strictly scrutinised, not only in Italy, but also in mid Europe like Vienna, Paris and Zurich. The repercussion against the ‘Oriundi’, however, had a wider backdrop to it rather than merely on-field failures. International sport is and was, after all, not only about success, but also about identity and national statement. A section of the Azzurri football fans and the ones at the helm did not like the idea of dual-nationality or players from foreign descent pulling on the famous blue shirt without any personal links with the country. The view, however, was not unilateral. Many sympathised with the ‘Oriundi’ as they were often the first to be implicated after an early tournament exit. Gianni Brera, the renowned Italian football writer, pigeonholed them as ‘lazy’ after the 1962 World Cup debacle. However, there was nothing characteristic of these players to suggest that they cared less or were not motivated about achieving something in Italian colours. Yet it was like it was. And after Angelo Sormani’s (born in Brazil) seventh and final cap in October 1963, it took another four decades for a non-native to play for Italy again.
This apprehension of detachment with the ‘Oriundi’ among a section of the Italian people prevented almost two generations’ inclusion in Azzurri squads. The spell was broken when Mauro Camoranesi turned up for Italy on the Stadio Luigi Ferraris field in Genoa on a wintery night in February 2003, in a friendly against Portugal. Camoranesi was born in Argentina in 1976 and was eligible to play for Italy because his roots traced back to a great-grandfather who had departed the Marche region of the country in 1873. The then Juventus winger went on to bag 55 caps and the 2006 World Cup winner’s medal, but was never fully embraced in his adopted country. In fact, his presence in the national team resurrected a debate that had been prevalent in Italy for decades. Camoranesi was quite honest about his choice as Argentina never called him up and Giovanni Trapattoni’s (then Italian manager) offer was too good to resist. Though he maintained that he remains an Argentinian at heart and the choice was purely a professional one, he was ruthlessly criticised by fellow footballers like compatriot Gabriel Batistuta, Inter goalkeeper Francesco Toldo, Paolo Maldini and Juventus teammate, Alessio Tacchinardi for cynical betrayal of his roots.
Emilio Badini was the first Argentine player to make his debut for Italy in a 1920 Olympics game against Norway. His debut was a memorable one at a personal level as he grabbed the winner in extra time. Since then Argentine descendants have accumulated 180 caps for the Southern European nation. And if anything, the debate has gathered more air through all these years. The debate is also not limited to only a section of general fans. Cesare Maldini, the former Italian defender and manager, has downright ridiculed the inclusion of foreign-born players in the national team and has termed the policy as regressive.
The question of nationality surrounding the ‘Oriundi’ players is much beyond football. It is a dilemma, which is not just about revitalising a football culture but also, even if unintentionally, about shaping out the type of country Italy wants to be. Football fans as well as the general public share quite diverse and wider views of the role of foreigners in Italian society. On the one hand, there is a sense of inclusiveness and the urge to embrace the state of the globalised modern world. According to this school of thought, rejecting the ‘Oriundi’ is similar to a ban based on sex or race, and will portray Italy as a conservative and narrow-minded country chauvinistic of differences. Times have changed – improvements in technology, transportation and communication along with easy availability of better and accurate information have made migration a lot easier. Thus, it is quite apparent that more and more foreign-born footballers will be eligible to play for Italy through their descent in the coming years. Turning the back on them and depriving the national team of the option to select from a wider talent pool will be ridiculous.
On other hand, Lega Nord, the right-wing political party which supports independence for Northern Italy, have openly voiced their dislike towards Thiago Motta, Dani Osvaldo and Camoranesi being considered for the national team.
On other hand, Lega Nord, the right-wing political party which supports independence for Northern Italy, have openly voiced their dislike towards Thiago Motta, Dani Osvaldo and Camoranesi being considered for the national team. There is also a section that vouches for the middle path. They are open to a foreign-born player only if (s)he is exceptionally talented or has the skills to carry out a role which no one else born in Italy can come close to perform. However, Italians should always be given the first chance in order to field a ‘pure’ Azzurri team if possible.
The situation is aptly summed up by Gabriel Alejandro Paletta, the Atalanta defender who has a U-20 World Cup winner’s medal with Argentina. He was called up by the Italian team in 2014 which irked quite a few in the national circuit. This is what he had to say in a media session:
“I grew up in Argentina but I feel Italian when I think of my great-grandfather. 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.” 
1. Lisi, 2011, p. 22
2. Lea, 2015, ‘Arrigo Sacchi and Italian football’s ethical dilemma about foreign players’.