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While drawing players from various parts of South America and naturalising them as citizens through their parents or grandparents, Italian football has benefited hugely over the last century from the repatriation of numerous members of the Italian diaspora. Raimondo Orsi, Jose Altafini and Omar Sivori are among the most famous members of an ever increasing group of immigrants to don the famous Azzurri shirt.

It became such common practice in the years immediately following the Second World War that it was given a name - ‘Oriundi’ - taken from a Latin verb meaning “be born”. A term coined to indicate an athlete born in Latin America, whose ancestors emigrated from Italy or Spain and then immigrated back to their country of origin.

Yet far from being restricted to South America, Italy has had players born in countries as diverse as South Africa (Eddie Firmani), England (Giuseppe Wilson) and even Libya (Claudio Gentile). This practice continues even today with Mauro Camoranesi, Amauri and Inter midfielder Thiago Motta being the most recent examples.

During the 1930′s - a highly successful period for the Italian National team - the coach Vittorio Pozzo selected several for the triumphant 1934 and 1938 World Cup sides and was heavily criticised for doing so. He answered this in his typically robust manner, citing Italy’s conscription policy under Benito Mussolini as he stated “if they can die for Italy, then they can play for Italy”.

Since that time these calls have rarely received much attention, until that is the United States born striker Giuseppe Rossi opted to play for the nation of his parents rather than line up for the USMNT. Raised in Teaneck New Jersey, the Villarreal man was afforded the opportunity to leave America at just 13 years of age when Parma gave him a place in their highly respected youth sector. His whole family uprooted and returned to the peninsula in order to help the player pursue his dream.

Soon his quality was recognised as he was called the represent the Italian youth  teams, playing for the Azzurri at Under 16, 17, 18 and 21 level on a total of 44 occasions, scoring 20 goals. Yet caps at this level do not tie a player to a country so Rossi remained eligible to play for both countries. This dual citizenship did not mean however that his loyalty was divided as, perhaps influenced by his late father, he expressed on numerous occasions his desire to represent Italy first and foremost.

While many people in the USA may not have been aware of Rossi at this point,  Manchester United certainly were and they took advantage of a loop-hole in Premier League rules that allows its clubs to sign players to a professional contract a year earlier than continental clubs. This saw him move to England as a 17 year old in early 2005 in similar fashion to the way Arsenal signed Cesc Fabregas and a move United themselves would repeat when they completed a move for Kiko Macheda three years later.

Rossi impressed at Old Trafford, scoring on his debut in a match against Sunderland and displaying impressive creativity, control and great instinct in and around the penalty area and was praised greatly by teammates Wayne Rooney and Ruud Van Nistelrooy. But therein lay the real problem, with two global stars ahead of him and a squad also able to boast Louis Saha, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Cristiano Ronaldo among its members, space for the youngster was impossible to find and it was no surprise he was sent away on loan, first in an ill-fated spell at Newcastle and then back to Parma.

A Fresh Faced Fergie Fledgling

Returning to Italy relaunched the talented scorer as he notched nine goals in 19 league appearances, and helped the club escape the threat of relegation. The arrival of the player, as well as new coach Claudio Ranieri, is widely acknowledged as the reason they avoided the drop and the well-travelled starlet was back on the world football radar.

His native country had still not given up hope of seeing him chose to represent them, as Siegfried Schmid contacted the player as he put together his squad for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2005, an offer repeated by the current LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena a year later as he readied the USMNT for the 2006 World Cup. Rossi declined on both occasions, instead electing to play for Pierluigi Casiraghi’s team at the 2008 Summer Olympics where his four goals made him the tournaments top scorer despite the Azzurri being eliminated at the quarter final stage.

By this time Manchester United had to relinquish the then 20-year-old, still unable to offer him regular playing time they sold him to Villarreal for a fee believed to be in the region of €10 million, the Spanish side turning to him as a replacement for the departing Diego Forlan, himself a former red. Sir Alex Ferguson was reluctant to surrender both players, but at the time one of the worlds biggest clubs were battling to overtake Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and could not afford to wait for players to deliver on potential, they needed instant guarantees and an immediate return to glory.

A superb debut season for the ‘Yellow Submarine’ finally saw Rossi make his Italy debut as a second half substitute against Bulgaria on October 11 2008 and he would score his first goal a year later in a friendly against Northern Ireland as they prepared for the Confederations Cup. In the subsequent tournament he would score twice against the USA in a match that would see him face his birth nation for the first time, a truly emotional night for the player. Along with a number of other well known names he would be omitted from the final squad for the 2010 World Cup campaign by Marcello Lippi.

The successor to Lippi however has made Rossi a regular part of his set-up, as Cesare Prandelli looks to craft a squad that will serve the country well into the 2014 World Cup and beyond. On 17 November last year, making just his eighteenth appearance for Italy against Romania, he was selected to pull on the captain’s armband, a moment that ranks among the proudest achievement in any players career.

Many in the US have heavily criticised Rossi, calling him a traitor and insulting him at every opportunity, a sad and narrow minded minority from a nation who can call upon many dual-nationality players throughout its own history. As far back as the 1950 World Cup the history of US Soccer has been hugely influenced by foreign nationals, from Joe Gaetjens and the “Miracle on Grass” at Belo Horizonte, Thomas Dooley who captaining the side in 1998/99 despite being born in Germany and numerous other examples like ESPN’s Janusz Michallik, Erhardt Kapp and even Stuart Holden of the current squad.

While his desire to chose the Azzurri shirt over the Stars and Stripes cannot be questioned it remains to be seen whether the lure of Serie A proves as great to a players who’s natural skills are arguably at odds with the countries slower, more technical game. After a number of years answering his critics and detractors with his on-field performances, perhaps it is fitting the player himself should have the last word here;

“Italy is my second home and I would like to go back there. But it’s not so important for me. Spain, England and Italy are all on the same level, the important thing is the project. What I want to do is to play and win, I feel Italian even if my first language is American.”

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5 Responses so far.

  1. Philip Gatt says:

    What an excellent post.

    I’ve been following Rossi’s career since he was a fledgling, and up
    to today still feel disappointed that he wasn’t given a better chance at United.

    This article does him justice, as it shows what a very good striker he is.

    Well done and keep it up.

  2. Canadian Geordie says:

    After watching Rossi at Newcastle I wasn’t sure if he had the drive to become an International quality player. I’m glad he’s proved me wrong after blossoming at Villareal
    You can’t blame Rossi for wanting to play for Italy. Most of his football education has been in Italy and he’s represented them at every level. As a Canadian, I know what it’s like to be burned by players not playing for their birth coutries

  3. SF says:

    Rossi was born in a hospital in Teaneck, NJ but was raised in Clifton, NJ.

  4. william says:

    rossi is a traitor, its not the same with dooley cuz wast gonna get playing time for germany, and holden moved here at 10 and not for soccer,
    and he called italy his second home, not 1st.. he knows hes american cuz he knows hes different from the other europeans

  5. David says:

    @william, no sorry, if American soccer fans genuinely believe in this “born in bred” principle as a reason to criticize Rossi for playing for Italy, then they would never have accepted foreign-born players like Thomas Dooley, Earnie Stewart, David Regis and Preki in the first place. Regardless if they were ever good enough to play for their respective birth countries.

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