Fourteen different nationalities were represented. Slovenia, Japan, Colombia and Brazil, France, Argentina, Montenegro and Ghana, Serbia, Switzerland, Mali, and Greece, Portugal and Croatia. One was conspicuous by its absence: Italy. The fans who bought tickets to watch Inter play Udinese at San Siro last month were unaware they were about to witness an event of minor historical proportions. Neither team named an Italian player in their starting XI.
Although nothing new in the Premier League where the first game to kick off without an Englishman was seven years ago, it was the first time this had ever happened in Serie A. That Inter and Udinese should be involved shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Inter’s whole identity is based around being “brothers of the world.” The clue is in the name. They splintered from Milan in order to open their doors to foreign players. As for Udinese, their model is predicated on scouring the globe for talent in markets that are undervalued to then put it on a bigger stage and sell it on at a higher price.
You can’t say this hasn’t been coming. Serie A recorded the biggest jump in foreign imports of all the top five leagues between 2008 and 2014. The number shot up from 39% to 53.7%. Curiously, over the same timeframe almost the exact opposite happened in La Liga. Naturally, the Inter-Udinese game brought the spotlight back on the issue that is never far away, particularly during international breaks or as major tournaments approach. At the moment, only clubs in the Premier League (66.4%) and Jupiler League (59.1%) have a higher percentage of foreign players on their books than Serie A’s (57.9%).
Often used as an excuse for the decline of the national team, it’s curious that in spite of the circumstances in England a bright new generation has emerged. As for Belgium they have arguably never had it so good. In their case, it’s either a freak or a combination of talent identification, the development of that talent and players moving abroad early and growing up quickly. In Italy, there has been little or no second wave after World Cup glory a decade ago. “It’s no longer the Italy of 2006,” Marcello Lippi laments, which isn’t so much a comment on the national team, rather the state of the game itself in Italy.
“When I congratulated Lippi on winning the league in China for a third year in a row,” explained Italy coach Antonio Conte, “he brought it to my attention that in 2006, 64% of the players in Serie A were Italian. Now that number has almost halved. It’s a stat that makes you reflect on the difficulties there are for the coach of the national team and for our clubs on a European level.”
Appointed while at the peak of his powers, Conte has been left disappointed that he could not affect change by the sheer force of his personality. On the whole, clubs remain un-collaborative and continue to act in their own self-interest. How Italy produces players is in need of review. Pretty much since 2010, it has been acknowledged as a problem. The gap between youth team and first team is considered too big. The emphasis on results mean coaches are reluctant to play the kids and as a consequence much of Italy’s new generation are either from or have had to go down to Serie B to get game time or are veterans who, after never being considered good enough for the national team in the past, are now being turned to out of desperation.
To look at Conte’s provisional 30-man squad on Monday was to be profoundly underwhelmed. Lorenzo Insigne, arguably the most exciting player of the lot, might not even make the final cut because, when all is said and done, what room is there for him if Conte settles on playing 3-5-2?
When you look at the strikers - Eder, Pelle, Immobile and Simone Zaza - it makes you frustrated with Mario Balotelli. At 25, he should be maturing into the world class striker he promised to become four years ago. If he applied himself, there is no question that he is better than all of them. Instead, like Cassano before him, he is a lost cause. The absence of outstanding individuals in the final third leaves you under no illusion whatsoever that it will take a great team effort for Italy to go far in France. Weirdly you get the sense that this is precisely what Conte wants - an undisputed collective success not beholden to any one player.
The silver-lining for his successor Giampiero Ventura is that there are some talented players coming through like Gigi Donnarumma in goal and Daniele Rugani, Alessio Romagnoli and Adam Masina in defence. Verratti could soon be joined in midfield by Stefano Sensi and Rolando Mandragora. Federico Ricci looks a promising winger to go with Insigne and Bernardeschi. In the meantime, it’s encouraging to see some clubs changing strategy too. Milan’s focus is now on restoring an Italian identity to the team. Torino have bought half of Italy’s Under-21 side to give a future to the national team. Juventus have always insisted on having an Italian core. But the example to follow is Sassuolo.
Within the context of Italian football, they are an outlier. In fact, you might say they’re a throwback to the days when the three-foreigner rule was still in effect because Alfred Duncan, Gregoire Defrel and Sime Vrsaljko are the only non-Italian players on the squad.
Sassuolo have the right blend between proven Serie A experience and the exuberance of youth. They’ve been ahead of the curve in scouting and signing some of the best young players in Italy, often partnering with Juventus, acting almost as a finishing school for Simone Zaza and Domenico Berardi. The deals for exciting midfielders like Sensi and Luca Mazzitelli were done long in advance. Both will join next season and continue a trend of Sassuolo taking chances on and giving opportunities to kids who didn’t get a chance elsewhere like Lorenzo Pellegrini and Matteo Politano.
Forty of Sassuolo’s goals this season were scored by Italian players, which is more than any other team in Serie A. A decade after celebrating promotion from the fourth division, they are preparing for Europe and their lesson is a simple one: clubs in Italy have by and large been ignoring what’s right under their noses and undervaluing the Italian market. The more who follow Sassuolo’s example, the better for the national team in the long-term.