Saturday, 2 August 2014

Shot by Both Sides: The Oriundi and Italian football

First Published in Pickles Magazine

Perennially under-appreciated, the oriundi are as much a part of Italy’s social history as its footballing tradition
Much has been written about nationality, and almost nothing agreed. The concept of belonging to a nation, whether de jure or de facto, is so personal, so circumstantial, so arbitrary as to be almost indefinable, or at the very least ambiguous. Yet there are those who wish to see things merely in black and white, who would deny others the right to a greyer version of nationality. Throughout the long history of the oriundi, this has been very much in evidence. In the 1930s, they were “traitors” to Italy who fled conscription, while in 1962, a poor showing at the World Cup was attributed to “foreigners” within the Nazionale – Gianni Brera dismissed the oriundi as “lazy”. In modern times dissenting voices have mainly originated from the ranks of organisations like the Lega Nord, an unfailingly delusional right-wing political group. Lega members have even gone so far as to declare their support exclusively for Azzurri born north of the Po Valley.

But to scorn the oriundi is to ignore both the history of Italian football and the country itself.  In the late nineteenth-century, fed up of economic hardship, agricultural stagnation and disease, thousands of Italians departed Italy for what was at the time one of the world’s most prosperous regions: the La Plata basin. It was the beginning of a long relationship between Italy and the nations of the region, whose cultures resultantly overlapped in terms of cuisine, fashion, language and, of course, football. Over time the descendants of these emigrants began returning to Europe, a number of them as professional footballers who were “repatriated” as part of a drive to ensure the success of the Nazionale. The cult of the oriundo was born.


Buenos Aires has always acknowledged its Italian roots. Around one third of the city’s population in the 1920s and 1930s was comprised of people of direct Italian descent. In the La Boca district, by the 1870s, the Italians had their own church, opera house and newspaper, and in the 1880s, some residents even went so far as to “secede” from Argentina and boldly raised the flag of Genoa as their own. Although “The Independent Republic of La Boca” lasted no longer than an Antonio Cassano diet-plan, the district’s two great teams – Boca Juniors and River Plate (who later abandoned the area) – have nevertheless produced a plethora of oriundi like Sìvori, Angelillo and, more recently, Ledesma. Along with La Boca, most other districts of Buenos Aires have produced oriundi, from historic greats like Maschio, Orsi and Monti to more modern incarnations such as Dani Osvaldo and Ezequiel Schelotto.

In the Uruguayan city of Montevideo, a short ferry ride away, is to be found a footballing heritage as rich in oriundi as that of Buenos Aires. Like Argentina, Uruguay was subject to massive immigration around the turn of the twentieth-century, and by the end of that decade about thirty per cent of the city was “foreign-born”. From Montevideo came oriundi like Andreolo, Mascheroni, Schiaffino and Alcides Ghiggia, a man whose winning goal for Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro is perhaps the most infamous goal in Brazilian football history. Eight years later, Ghiggia was part of the first ever Italy team to fail to qualify for the World Cup.

However, oriundi had a much more positive impact on Italy’s previous World Cups. The man primarily responsible for their inclusion in the squad for the 1934 tournament was Benito Mussolini. “When the fledging World Cup appeared,” notes Paddy Agnew in Forza Italia, “Mussolini did not need prompting. With Italy staging the 1934 finals on home ground, he wanted success. With pragmatic cynicism, legislation banning foreign players was reversed and suddenly the Italian national team was able to field a number of Argentine stars of Italian origin, three of them – Orsi, Monti and Guaita – playing a key role in Italy’s 1934 World Cup triumph.”

Mussolini’s recruitment drive reflected Fascist ideals of a “great Italy” that incorporated the diaspora. To the Italian state, no distinction was made between Orsi et al and those born and bred on the peninsula – they were all, quite simply, Italians. Consequently, as well as being vital in sporting terms, the oriundi were also symbolic of an expanded Italian nation stretching beyond Italy’s border, a wet dream for a colonialist ruler such as Mussolini.

But despite Il Duce’s initial backing, the original oriundi were dogged by accusations of greed. Many at home and abroad believed they came to Italy for purely financial reasons. In the eyes of some, this was confirmed after the outbreak of the Abyssinian War, when oriundi including Orsi and Guaita fled Italy and conscription to the army. Effectively, they were deserters. Interestingly, the same applied when Antonio Angelillo left Argentina for Italy in 1957. At the time he had not completed his military service and, subsequently classified as a deserter, was unable to return to Argentina until 1977.

Evidently, becoming an oriundo was not a choice that generally resulted in a great deal of triumph. “Striker José Altafini complained that it was ‘the biggest mistake of his career’,” writes John Foot in Calcio. “Having won a World Cup with Brazil in 1958, he opted for Italy in 1960. However, FIFA then banned dual nationals, and Altafini was left in limbo as the azzurri stopped selecting oriundi. At the age of 24, his international career was over. For Brazil he was a mercenary, and the same accusation was made in Italy.”

Nowadays, the accusation most often directed at oriundi is that they are generally not good enough to play for their country of birth, hence their appearance in the blue of Italy. In some cases this may indeed be the motivation for an oriundo, but this idea is countered by the presence in the current World Cup squad of Thiago Motta and Gabriel Paletta, who would surely have starred in Brazil for an Argentina team very short on defensive options. Perhaps modern oriundi are not as unilaterally talented as those from the 1930s and 1950s, but to say that all current incarnations of the tradition are second-rate is at best simplistic, at worst misguided. Paletta and Motta could be integral to Italy’s chances at the World Cup. 

Nationalist politicians from organisations like the Lega continue to question the Italian-ness of the oriundi, but have entirely failed to acknowledge that Monti, Sìvori and even Dani Osvaldo are as much part of the Nazionale’s fabric as Meazza, Rivera or Maldini. The oriundi have always been there, and they’ve always contributed. Cesare Prandelli is well aware of this, and has no intention of capitulating to the whims of men who would begrudge others their opportunities.

As Paletta himself told “I grew up in Argentina and that’s where all my family live, but when I think about my grandfather’s dream of his sons returning to Calabria one day with a little bit of money to show that they had made it, that’s when I feel Italian. The way I see it, being called up to the national side has allowed me to fulfil his dream.”

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