While Italy’s penalty shoot-out victory in last Sunday’s Euro 2020 final against the hosts, England, was lauded by large parts of the population, there were also those for whom the win presented a step in the wrong direction.
Unlike the last three Italian squads at international tournaments – Euro 2012 and 2016 and the World Cup in 2014 – coach Roberto Mancini’s Euro 2020 squad had no players with immigrant backgrounds.
That stands in stark contrast to other western European countries that qualified for the finals, as all but one of them had at least one player from an immigrant background in their squad.
Conspicuous by their absence in this regard were the winners, Italy.
Even though they had three players who were not born in Italy, they had no players who were representative of the country’s multicultural society.
Players such as Granit Xhaka, Glen Kamara, Saša Kalajdžic, Georginio Wijnaldum, Adama Traoré, Karim Benzema and Emre Can put in impressive performances at the Euros. The one thing they all have in common, is that they have an immigrant background.
Ahead of this final, the last time Italy played England in an official game was at the 2014 World Cup, with Mario Balotelli scoring the winner in the 2-1 victory for the Azzurri. The striker was born to Ghanaian immigrants, but was later fostered by Italian parents.
Author and academic Max Mauro looked at issues of inclusion and belonging in Italian football and society in his book The Balotelli Generation: Issues of Inclusion and Belonging in Italian Football and Society, published in 2016.
He believes that Italian football authorities missed an important opportunity at Euro 2020.
“Football is the most popular sport in Italy and in the world, and it is key in the representation of a country and its society. Italy is a diverse country, home to a diverse population, enriched by immigration since at least the 1980s.
“Having players of immigrant backgrounds in the team would have sent a positive message about inclusiveness and diversity.
“This is important particularly for the younger generations, for the children of immigrants who grow up feeling Italian,” Mauro said.
Two players with an immigrant background, Angelo Ogbonna and Moise Kean, missed out on making the squad, with West Ham’s Ogbonna being critical of the decision not to call him up.
While Ogbonna and Kean have played for Italy, many other footballers born in Italy to immigrant parents have decided to throw their lots in with their ancestral countries.
For instance, several players – including Marash Kumbulla, Marco Alia, Sergio Kalaj and Ramën Çepele – were born in Italy, but play internationally for Albania.
Mauro, who is also a senior lecturer in sports journalism at Solent University in the UK, was critical of the make-up of the Italian Euro squad: “It’s a pity that this Italian team does not include any player of immigrant background, while it includes three players of distant Italian descent – all three Brazilian. It says something important about national identity.
“In a way, it seems to affirm that ‘jus sanguinis’ [citizenship based on ancestry] matters more than ‘jus soli’ [citizenship based on place of birth]. Having some ‘drop’ of Italian blood is more important than being born or raised in Italy,” he said.
The three players in the squad who were not born in Italy – Jorginho, Emerson and Rafael Tolói – are all so-called oriundi, which is the name given to players whose ancestors were Italian emigrants, having left the country a long time ago.
Jorginho, for example, qualified for Italian citizenship based on his great-great grandfather, who left Italy in 1896. The selection of oriundi for the national football team is a reminder of one of the darker periods of Italian history as it was introduced during the fascist era in the 1930s.
Unlike the Italian squad, which fails to reflect diversity, half of the players in the England team in Sunday’s final had parents or grandparents born outside the UK.
The advocacy group Best for Britain, which campaigns for the rights of immigrants and immigration to the UK, said it “feared that new hostile immigration policies may deprive national teams of talented players from immigrant backgrounds in the future”.
“Changes to freedom of movement [in the EU after Brexit] may make it more difficult for future British footballers to play across Europe in the same way that several members of the current England squad already do. [Gareth] Southgate’s final squad, along with those flying the flag for Scotland and Wales, are great examples of the positive legacy of immigration to the UK,” said Naomi Smith, the organisation’s CEO.
Thus, in last Sunday’s final, the one side had several players showing the rich diversity of European societies (England), while the other showed an exclusivity that many say is outdated.
The team with the exclusivity won, which, for some, was a step in the wrong direction.