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Is Italy Fatally Insular?

I’ve been reading Rob Hughes for many years, always with interest, but a recent piece of his in the New York Times (from his On Soccer column in the International Herald Tribune) made me wonder about the pretzel logic that can sometimes accompany political correctness. 

The theme of his article published on June 15 was that Germany, thanks to its multicultural team, was displaying a new vigor, while Italy, top-heavy with, well, uh, Italians, was on the skids:

There seems to be a new, vibrant, powerful Germany: a side whose players are too young to fear defeat and whose diverse ethnic backgrounds are a testimony to the society now forming in that country … [I]n contrast, [Italy] clings largely to the team that won the last World Cup, in Berlin in 2006. Its cautiously played 1-1 tie with Paraguay on Monday in Cape Town confirmed suspicions that Italy is growing long in the tooth.

It’s odd for Hughes to write this, for two reasons. For starters, the Italians actually played rather well against Paraguay, and attacked far more than they usually do. But more bizarre was Hughes’ claim that Italy “largely clings” to the team that won four years ago. 

In fact Italy has changed considerably in the past four years, with many of the holdovers from 2006 no longer starters anymore. Of those who began the match against Paraguay, for example, five were not in the squad that won the World Cup (Chiellini, Criscito, Pepe, Montolivo, and Marchisio). Of the three substitutes, two were players also not selected four years ago (Marchetti and Di Natale). And to push the argument a bit further, of the 23 players selected for South Africa, 13 weren’t in the 2006 final selection at all.

However, Italy really just serves as a straw man for Hughes’ main point, that German strength comes from its growing diversity. Aside from being a trifle premature, since Germany has played only one game until now, his argument is never properly developed.

“With the exception of Mauro Camoranesi, who was born in Buenos Aires, Italy’s team is of pure Italian blood,” Hughes writes, as if that were particularly odd in a national team. The mention of “pure Italian blood” is jarring, since it suggests that Italy’s coach, Marcello Lippi, chooses his players according to their race and background.

The Italian league has been one of the most cosmopolitan of championships. However, had Lippi wanted to pick more natives from an immigrant background for his squad, he would have been hard pressed to find them. There are just not that many playing in Italy, at least not a whole lot who immediately come to my mind.

When big Italian teams look for diversity, they import talent from abroad. This may or may not be a reason why domestic players from an immigrant background are less common, but if problem there is it probably comes from the way Italian teams develop young talent, not Lippi’s stubbornness. In my view, the heavy reliance of major clubs on big name foreign players has made Italian football less competitive in Europe, though that lesson need not be applicable everywhere.

In contrasting Italy and Germany, Hughes seems to imply that a mix of different cultures helps a team perform better. That might be true, but it doesn’t have to be true; nor does it render false the contrary proposition: that more homogeneous teams can perform just as well. Top teams such as Spain, Argentina, and to a lesser extent Uruguay, to name only them, are fairly homogeneous, even if their cultures are characterized by high levels of immigration.

But even as I make this argument, I really wonder what homogeneity and purity mean in the most globalized of sports. Which Italian player or coach has not worked with or for myriad foreigners during his career, and has not learned from their talents? To be part of a team today is to internalize countless cultures, styles, languages, and so on. What Hughes sees as an advantage for teams like Germany, namely the richness of varied experience, is already very much a feature of international football anyway.

But Hughes is making more a moral argument than a sporting one. He’s already reached his conclusion about the benefits of multiculturalism before clarifying how these apply to football. What he misses is that talent doesn’t have a color or a specific origin.