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Calcio Chronicles: Serie A still depends on South America

Below is the transcript for the first episode of Calcio Chronicles, written by Anthony Lopopolo and produced by Amil Delic.

South Americans played in Italy from the start. In the 1920s, they came for a bigger paycheque. They were paid more than doctors, politicians and even lawyers. Some of them even represented Italy on an international level and won a World Cup with them. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay were colonies of the first Italian soccer league.

Benito Mussolini wanted it this way. He wanted a strong imperial Italy, branching out across the globe, but South Americans weren’t always loved in their adoptive country. They won trophies, but they didn’t earn respect. They weren’t Italian enough. Not the same. Not one of their own. Not of their blood.

Later in the 1960s, after Italy lost to North Korea in the World Cup, foreigners were banned altogether from playing in Serie A. It’s no coincidence that this was the worst period in the history of the league.

Serie A only reached its peak once the ban was lifted. Think of Diego Maradona in the 90s: these were the glory days.

So many other South Americans settled right into Italy. Julio Cesar, Cafu, Montero, Zanetti, Batistuta: The transition was easy for them. In Argentina and Uruguay and Brazil, as in Italy, they played a game in close corners. Clubs, tribes, provinces, derbies all came first.

Look at all the rivalries in Buenos Aires, one big divided city. It’s like Rome, but times 10. The game in these countries has always been feral, the emotion and pageantry just as big or bigger than match itself.

Certain clubs have always fed Italy with their players. River Plate and Boca Juniors are huge exporters. Omar Sivori was the trailblazer, the star of Juve in the late 50s. More recently, Palacio, Crespo and Lamela.

Giorgio Perottino/Reuters
Giorgio Perottino/Reuters

And then there is Gonzalo Higuain and Carlos Tevez. What would Serie A look like without them? Or Arturo Vidal and Juan Cuadrado? It’s no surprise these are the players that Europe wants every transfer window.

The top four scorers in Serie A are all from Argentina*. South Americans in total have scored 154 goals in the league this season—more than a quarter of all the goals scored so far. (558)

The smaller clubs depend just as much on South America. Palermo and Udinese dust off gems all the time, and then turn a big profit. Alexis Sanchez and Javier Pastore and Edinson Cavani have all gone through these channels.

Let’s take a look at our current South American 11. Between the pipes, Sergio Romero of Sampdoria. At the back: Inter’s Juan Jesus, Fiorentina’s Gonzalo Rodriguez, Torino’s Bruno Peres and Roma’s Maicon. Controlling the mid: Juve’s Vidal, Udinese’s Allan, and Fiorentina’s Matias Fernandez. And leading the line: Palermo’s Paulo Dybala of Palermo, Napoli’s Higuain and finally Juve’s Tevez. This is a team that could beat the Azzurri.

Picture the biggest game of the year: Napoli vs. Juve. Just six Italians started the game.

South Americans are keeping this league alive, but they are also taking the place of other young Italian players. Luca Toni asked the question two weeks ago: why not wait on the Italian kids? Why always chose the foreigners?

Not only Toni thinks this way. There is still an identity crisis in the peninsula. There is still a struggle to reconcile with the foreign talent. Fewer and fewer young Italians get playing time on bigger clubs, and even fewer are successful abroad.

Italy have won just a single World Cup match since 2006. It’s getting desperate. It’s their North Korea moment. They don’t see a strong Italy anymore. There is still resistance against even the non-Italian internationals, players like Balotelli and El Shaarawy.

Maybe this next wave of Italians is just not good enough. Maybe the South Americans are better. Maybe they’re worth more. Or maybe Italy has not changed at all.

*At the time of writing

Calcio Chronicles is a new monthly series that covers a variety of subjects within the Italian game.