Last night there was a startling realisation. There was, before Leo Messi had his way, a chance that a Champions League semi-final may be played without a single domestic player.
In Tuesday’s Champions League fixture, Inter, not uncommonly for the Nerazzurri, started the game without a single Italian in their line-up. In fact only one, young substitute striker Mario Balotelli, was to feature at all during the evening, and he himself was born to Ghanaian parents. Furthermore, his name comes from the surname of his adoptive parents, and only gained Italian citizenship in 2008. Much consternation still surrounds whether “Super Mario” will even remain at Inter after a recent fall-out with head coach José Mourinho. The team otherwise, including substitutes, contained seven South Americans, including captain Javier Zanetti, two Africans, a Macedonian, Romanian, Serb and match-winning Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder.
The majority of Arsenal supporters were unconcerned as their team became the first English side not to feature a single Englishman in a league game – because the team was winning. Neither, if you ask the majority of Curva Nord residents, did Inter supporters truly mind when they were winning scudetto after scudetto and were completing record-breaking 17-game winning sequences. Until Messi’s masterclass at the Nou Camp last night put Arsenal to bed, there was a real prospect that Europe’s show-piece semi-final between an English and Italian team would have contained only two domestic players.
Mourinho’s faltering relationship with the media, and Inter’s poor recent form in Serie A, has drawn further attention to the foreign element at the San Siro. There has always been a link with Inter and Argentina, which is reflected in the current squad and the position of Zanetti as adoptive Milanese and club captain. Indeed their goalkeeper, back four and holding midfield player were all South American. Evidently, the top side in Serie A no longer trust their Italian players to defend. It is ironic also given that European clubs used to buy South Americans to add flair. No longer it seems, and a worrying trend for a nation that invented catenaccio.
The authorities have looked at a number of ways of addressing the issue throughout Italian football. The acquisition of non-EU, non EFTA and non-Swiss players has been altered in the last decade to shore up the gaps and included allowing these players to be bought from domestic clubs only, albeit with restrictions. Inter, amongst others, however were able to ‘borrow’ quotas from other teams allowing them to purchase more non-EU players, making the rules a little futile.
Whether it bothers the football world or not, it is quite the shame that calico should be heading this way. One hopes that without being forced to do so, Italy’s leagues will not become dominated by average foreign players in a way the Premier League has.