The curse of Italians abroad

A popular conspiracy which floats around Italian football is that if you’re Italian but opt to move overseas to a foreign league, your international career is essentially over unless you move back to Serie A. Just ask Sebastian Giovinco.

This is not so much the case though in the modern world because it is so difficult for the best 23 players representing one country to all play in the same league thanks to the widespread globalisation of football.

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The World Cup winning squads of 1982 and 2006 and the squads at USA ‘94 and Euro 2000 which both finished runners-up all consisted of 23 Italian based players, something that would be nearly impossible in the present era if you want to select your strongest pool of players.

It was after the success in 2006 however when a trend started, a trend which Italy was very late to discover.

Fabio Cannavaro, Fabio Grosso, Gianluca Zambrotta and Luca Toni all left Italy almost instantly or within a year of winning the World Cup and over the next decade many more Italian players looked for new pastures abroad, with limited success.

So why is it that so many have stellar seasons in Italy, move elsewhere and then find it difficult?

The Premier League has hardly been blessed with Italians that have flourished with notable exceptions in Gianfranco, Zola, Roberto Di Matteo and Paolo Di Canio but the curious case of Mario Balotelli is a head-scratching anomaly.

He had his supreme highs in a Manchester City shirt, scoring two in a 6-1 win at Old Trafford, claiming the Man of the Match award in an FA Cup Final in 2011, and assisting a title-winning goal for Sergio Aguero a year later.

However, disciplinary issues on and off the pitch led to his demise. A very successful 18 months at Milan led to his return to England to sign for Liverpool but this turned out to be a disaster as he scored just four goals all season against Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea City, Ludogorets and Besiktas.

That return was slightly below par for a player signed as Luis Suarez’s replacement.

He has picked up form in France with Nice and now Marseille but against much lower quality opposition. Despite impressing at Euro 2012 while he was a City player, since leaving Italy in 2014 for Liverpool, he’s only played 60 minutes of competitive football for the national team.

More recent Premier League imports from Serie A haven’t been much better either.

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Davide Zappacosta and Emerson were both bought by Antonio Conte at Chelsea but have barely kicked a ball this season with just six league appearances between them.

Zappacosta excelled at Torino and Emerson was first choice at Roma until injuries and the signing of Aleksandar Kolarov restricted his playing time.

But Jorginho has received the majority of the media scrutiny this season at Stamford Bridge, and rightfully so.

A £57 million price tag and one penalty and zero assists to show for it by February with Chelsea’s position looking perilous outside the Top 4, he looks a shadow of the player who bossed Napoli’s midfield under Maurizsio Sarri.

It may be too early to say, but he looks to be another quality player just very unsuited to the physical nature and manic pace of the Premier League. It’s worth remembering even Guardiola wanted him in City’s midfield.

Any Torino player that is thinking about leaving the club to move abroad may want to bare in mind the fate of four of their players to have done so in the last few years – Ciro Immobile, Alessio Cerci, Matteo Darmian and Antonio Barreca.

Immobile is back on track now since moving back to Italy with Lazio but he had a tricky two years at Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla, scoring 14 goals over the two seasons, a third of the amount that he scored last season in Rome.

In the 2013/14 season, Immobile and Cerci were in extraordinary form and both left at the end of the season, for the previous two Champions League runners-up, Dortmund and Atletico respectively.

If Immobile’s move was bad then Cerci’s was shocking. He only spent six months in Madrid and with an uninspiring brief return to Italy with loans at Milan and Genoa, he was then relegated with Verona and he now plies his trade at Ankaragucu in Turkey.

The futures of Darmian and Barreca are still up in the air though. Both showed huge promise but have stalled badly since leaving Italy with Darmian out of favour at Manchester United and Barreca now on loan to Newcastle United after being a part of the Monaco side that have had a nightmare half season so far.

Teenage sensation Pietro Pellegri also made the switch from Italy to the principality and all fans of the Azzurri will be keeping fingers crossed he makes better progress there than Stephan El Shaarawy did just over three years ago

While El Shaarawy showed signs of regression rather than progression after leaving Milan, a  swift return to join Roma has led to instant improvement.

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Nothing symbolises the modern-day change in Italian football greater than arguably their best player having never played a game in Serie A, Marco Verratti.

Leaving Italy after winning Serie B with Pescara in a team where Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne scored 46 league goals between them, to join Paris Saint-Germain.

He is undoubtedly a world-class talent but has brought very little notable success to PSG, except a lot of domestic titles which is expected anyway, and little success to the national team.

Classed as the heir to Pirlo’s throne, he must do a lot more at both club and country to be mentioned in the same breath as the World Cup winner.

Perhaps moving back to Italy, which has been muttered and rumoured plenty of times since he broke into that elite bracket of midfielders, would enhance his career that little bit further unless he can help provide PSG with a Champions League trophy and give Italy something to shout about Euro 2020.

It is unquestionable to say that his dynamic, aggressive style of play on top of his immense technique needs to be far greater utilised at international level especially.

It is a strange continuous occurrence, but there certainly does seem to be something that always fails when an Italian opts to test himself in a foreign league.

The absolute legends of Italian football, Maldini, Totti, Baggio, Baresi, Del Piero to name a few, never ventured out of Italy during their peak.

Some have done in their swan song, like Del Piero, as well as Pirlo, Nesta and now Buffon but their image in Italy will remain untouchable for many.

It will be interesting to see in a decade or so how the likes of Verratti and Jorginho are perceived and where they rank amongst the very best of Italy’s past if they continue to spend their peak outside of that country.

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Andrew Delaney

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