Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Eight points clear at the top of Group C having only conceded one goal in eight games, Italy's place at Euro 2012 is already booked. Coach Cesare Prandelli could have been forgiven for thinking that his decisions ahead of their final two qualifiers, in Serbia and at home to Northern Ireland, wouldn't come scrutiny.
However, he put paid to that notion when, in light of injuries to Giampaolo Pazzini and Mario Balotelli, he called Pablo Daniel Osvaldo up to the squad.
Roma striker Osvaldo forms part of a group Prandelli calls the New Italians. In truth, that’s nothing more than a clever rebranding exercise relating to a longstanding selection policy: the Oriundi.
An Oriundo is a player born or raised in another country who can trace his roots back to Italy, often through a grandparent. The first was Ermanno Aebi, who played and scored for Italy in a historic 9-4 victory over France on January 18, 1920. Osvaldo is the 38th to represent the Azzurri.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1986 and brought through the youth systems at Lanús, Banfield and Huracán, he is also the 18th from Argentina and follows in the footsteps of Renato Cesarini, Omar Sívori and the most capped Oriundo of all, Mauro Camoranesi.
There’s nothing particularly novel about it. Unsurprisingly, however, the right-wing and unpalatably anti-immigrant political party Lega Nord – a key partner in Silvio Berlusconi’s ailing coalition government – are ‘upset’. “Osvaldo’s call-up certifies the definitive failure of the FIGC’s policies,” a statement read. "Prandelli’s project based around talented young players is transforming itself into a guesthouse for Oriundi."
By spinning and generalising to suit their scaremongering agenda, the Lega were once again missing the point. There’s more to nationality than place of birth, and anyway Osvaldo has played for the Italy Under-21s on a dozen occasions, including appearing at the Olympics under Pierluigi Casiraghi. During his time at Fiorentina, he even married a local girl and in 2008 endeared himself to the city by scoring a stunning bicycle kick against Torino, a goal worth £15m as it earned the club a place in the Champions League.
Osvaldo’s commitment isn’t what’s up for debate here, nor has it ever been an issue. “It’s the realisation of a dream,” he smiled on Wednesday night. So why then has his call up caused such a stir?
Well, there are other candidates perhaps more deserving of a place in the squad, such as Alessio Cerci or Alessandro Matri, who has averaged more or less a goal every other game since joining Juventus in January. Did Matri’s place on the bench in Sunday’s 2-0 victory over Milan influence Prandelli’s choice? Or was it, as the conspiracy theorists would have it, a political-football concession in light of there already being six Juventus players in his squad?
Whatever it may be, scepticism surrounds Osvaldo and has done ever since Roma raised eyebrows by paying Espanyol €17m for his services in the summer. Few were prepared to acknowledge his extraordinary spell in La Liga where he scored 20 goals in 44 games.
Instead, it was remembered that he’d flattered to deceive in three previous seasons in Serie A with Fiorentina and Bologna, finding the net on only eight occasions.
Lest it be forgotten, Prandelli was Osvaldo’s coach at Fiorentina. He wasn’t entirely convinced and allowed him to leave for Bologna, where the striker was more often than not on the bench. But that was then and this is now, and Prandelli, unlike many in the media, appears to have changed his opinion.
“Osvaldo is a modern and complete striker. He is of interest to us in prospect,” the Italy coach said. There’s a degree of truth to that of course, as Osvaldo does offer something different. He has experienced another football culture, thrived in it, and can play both in the air and on the ground, although his habit of giving the ball away is frustrating.
Still, despite being arguably the most handsome man in Italian football, his early performances for Roma were ugly – La Gazzetta dello Sport gave Osvaldo a 4.5 for his display against Cagliari and a 5 against Inter. However, he is showing signs of progress and has scored three goals in each of his last three games in a new system with a new manager during a period of adaptation.
For some, though, it’s still not nearly enough to justify a place in La Nazionale. Prandelli, they say, has missed a golden opportunity to give young players who have broken through at club level in Serie A a chance to discover what it’s like to play for Italy, citing the likes of Fabio Borini at Roma, Alberto Paloschi at Chievo, Diego Fabbrini at Udinese and Manolo Gabbiadini at Atalanta.
“What Osvaldo’s call up shows is that even when Italy’s ‘big players’ are knocked out by injury, there is still little chance of youngsters representing their country at the highest level,” wrote Fabrizio Bocca in La Repubblica.
Only last month the newspaper published an investigation showing that just 4.2% of appearances in Serie A were made by players under the age of 21 throughout the entire 2010-11 campaign.
That figure doesn’t look like improving either, as in a separate study carried out by La Gazzetta dello Sport last week it was revealed that 51% of the players used so far in the top flight are foreign – and moreover 57% of the goals scored have come from non-Italian players.
Amid so much that is positive about Prandelli’s Italy, it’s a worrying sign that for all the talk of developing homegrown talent, the culture has perhaps still yet to change.
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