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Pablo Daniel Osvaldo and the Politics of Identity in Italian Football

9th October, 2011

In the end his services were not called upon; with qualification for next year’s European Championships already secured, Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli, whether for reasons tactical or political, chose to leave Argentina-born striker Pablo Daniel Osvaldo on the bench for the duration of Friday’s match against Serbia.

Osvaldo in the colours of Roma

Osvaldo’s selection has re-exposed some of the fault lines crisscrossing the politics of identity in Italy. Fitting then that this most recent call to arms should have been to replace the other cause célèbre of the less ashamedly xenophobic factions of the fans and followers of Italian football, Mario Balotelli, who had pulled out with an injury. The symmetry is especially appealing given that Osvaldo’s last appearance in national team colours was as a substitute for Balotelli in an under-21 match almost exactly three years ago.

Of course though that wing of the Juventus support who unfurled a banner with the words ‘There are no black Italians’ for the benefit of Balotelli suggest a degree of disturbing denial amongst at least a tiny segment of Italian society, thus far no American-style ‘birther’ movement of the kind to have hounded US President Barack Obama has emerged in the peninsula demanding that the Manchester City striker publish evidence that he was indeed born in Palermo. Such a group of course would of course be entirely irrelevant (but no less preposterous) in Osvaldo’s case. Rather, then, than the claim that there are no black Italians, the rallying call of the chauvinist seems to have altered to something akin to ‘there are no Italians who were born outside Italy.’

Perhaps the most critical public attack has come from Davide Cavallotto, an MP for the Lega Nord, an extreme right-wing political party and important coalition partner of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Cavallotto declared “the selection of Osvaldo to the national team attests to the undeniable failure of the Figc’s[1] policies. Cesare Maldini’s project, which should have led our young talent to the Azzuri shirt, is turning into a boarding house for oriundi.”

In a footballing context ‘oriundi’ refers to players born outside Italian territory, typically of Italian descent, who have taken Italian citizenship and represented their adoptive country. Italy has a rich tradition of importing talent from its diaspora. Indeed, their presence was crucial to Benito Mussolini’s ambitions to create a football squad capable of winning the World Cup and thereby lending credence to his doctrine of Italian racial superiority. The team that hoisted the trophy in 1934 on home soil included three players who had been born and raised in Argentina: Luis Monti, Enrique Guaita and Raimundo Orsi. All three men had been capped previously by their country of birth and Monti had even been on the losing end in the World Cup final four years earlier when Uruguay had beaten Argentina to win the inaugural tournament. In 1938, when Italy won the World Cup for the second time in succession, their winning line-up included no Argentinian-born players, but did feature the naturalised Uruguayan Miguel Andreolo.

In fact given the presence of Claudio Gentile in 1982 and Mauro Camoranesi in 2006, born in Libya and Argentina respectively, it can safely be argued that Italy have never won football’s greatest prize with a team made up entirely of home-born players.

Odder still perhaps is not this neglect of history, because human beings do seem as a rule wont to ignore or disregard evidence that disputes their claims, but rather the basic fact that any one who has taken up citizenship with a country, irrespective of whether or not she was born there, is under the law as much a citizen as anyone else. I don’t claim to have any training in the law, least of all in the finer points of its application to naturalisation in Italy, but I imagine that it would be safe to assume that any naturalised Italian enjoys the same rights as anyone who received her citizenship by having had the good fortune of having being born in Italy to Italian parents.

Perhaps Mr Cavalotti is not the best person from whom to be taking lessons on Italian civics. After all the full name of his party is the ‘Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania’, which clearly betrays its fundamental mission of separation from the rest of Italy. The Lega Nord advocates the creation of a state known as Padania, whose borders would gird most of the north of the current Italian state. Many of the party’s members are well known for the disdain in which they hold the centre and south of the country, whose residents act as a swarm of leeches, sucking dry the economic successes of the more industrialised north.

Davide Cavalotto, foe of immigration

Members of the Lega Nord have in the past complained not only about the presence of overseas-born footballers but ones native to the slightly more domestic climes of Naples and Rome in the national squad. Cavalotto’s party colleague Matteo Salvini declared before last year’s World Cup that he would support the entire squad except for its Neapolitan captain Fabio Cannavaro and his Roman deputy Daniele De Rossi, so in retrospect it seems that poor Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, born in Argentina and playing now for Roma, was always liable to be a prime target for the Lega’s ire. Still, perhaps it would be better for Mr Cavalotti to ignore Osvaldo’s selection, as well as the imminent return of the currently injured Brazilian-born Internazionale midfielder Thiago Motta to the national side. He may instead wish to devote his time to dictating the selection policy of the Padanian squad.

Some critics of Osvaldo’s selection, including former national team coach Cesare Maldini, have justified their cynicism with the argument that there are other strikers more deserving of a call-up based on current form. While it may be true that the Roma player had three fairly unexceptional seasons in Italy, before departing for Spain in 2010, where he scored 20 goals in 40 appearances for Espanyol. He has three goals in his last three games this season and it can be argued that he is playing as well as any fit Italian striker at the moment, bar perhaps Antonio Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi, both of whom were picked ahead of him for the match against Serbia.

The other charge levelled against Osvaldo, one suffered by fellow ‘oriundi’ of recent years such as Motta, Comoranesi and Amauri before him, is that this is a choice made simply because he is not good enough for the country of his birth. Though it is true that Argentina currently have a surfeit of exceptionally talented players in Osvaldo’s position, surely it is the striker’s right as a dual-national to make himself for either nation, or indeed, until he has made a senior competitive appearance for one country, both. Osvaldo may have arrived in Italy as an economic migrant, but his assumption of Italian citizenship, his acclimatisation to Italian life and his desire to play for his new country are surely in no way tempered by any allegiance he may still feel to the land of his upbringing. Whatever one might see as the chief motivation for Osvaldo’s decision to represent Italy, his reasons have to be less sinister than the agents that offered great financial incentives to the likes of Monti and Orsi during the fascist years to come to Italy in order to create a squad of supposedly super-human Italian athletes and burnish the image of Mussolini’s regime.

Osvaldo for his part seems to have shown remarkable restraint. This weekend he slyly suggested he was “more Italian” than some members of the Lega Nord—a claim their own desire for separation would surely corroborate—while graciously thanking Prandelli for the faith placed in him. The coach of the Azzurri may yet play the striker in Tuesday’s qualifier against Northern Ireland. Cavalotti, Salvini and those of a similar frame of mind will presumably have their television sets turned off and in the meantime instead be dreaming of a fictional Padania, where the borders will be closed to Argentinian-Romans such as Osvaldo and from which even the Milan-raised Balotelli will find himself deported to his natal Sicily.


[1] Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, Italian football’s governing body.

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