MILAN — When Italy and England kick off their European Championship qualifying campaigns with a duel against each other on Thursday, March 23, some of the attention will be focused on one Argentine.
Striker Mateo Retegui has been called up for the first time by Azzurri coach Roberto Mancini, which has revived a debate in the country about citing foreign-born footballers for the national team.
Retegui was born in Argentina and has completed his entire career in the South American country. He represented the Albiceleste at the youth level in international tournaments. But he has never done it with the absolute and has Italian citizenship through his maternal grandmother. His father was a field hockey player and coach of the men’s team that gave Argentina the first gold medal in that discipline, at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
Instead of waiting for his opportunity to play for the world champions, the 23-year-old attacker lasted the call of Italy, which did not even qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“We have been following in his footsteps for a long time. He has quality and he is a brilliant guy,” Mancini stated. “We didn’t think he was going to accept. We trust that he can be an important piece ”.
Retegui is a member of the Argentine club Tigre, on loan from Boca Juniors, and was the top scorer in the local league last season with 19 goals. He also leads the current tournament’s scoring table, with six wins in eight games.
And he could debut with Italy on Thursday in Naples in a stadium that bears the name of an Argentine myth: Diego Maradona.
Mancini lacks options in the forward line with Ciro Immobile and Giacomo Raspadori missing through injury, and Gianluca Scamacca has not fully recovered.
“I don’t know why we have so many forwards, we’re pretty limited up front,” Mancino said. “We have three (Italian) teams in the Champions League quarterfinals, but at most there are seven or eight Italians in the three teams. This is the reality”.
Italy have a long history of including South Americans in their squad after establishing themselves in Serie A. Brazilian Jorginho was a recent example. But Retegui’s call-up has sparked more debate, partly because he has never played in Italy and partly because Mancini criticized Antonio Conte for bringing in foreigners when the current Tottenham manager coached Italy.
Mancini, who was managing Inter Milan at the time, said at the time that “the Italian team has to be Italian” and that in his opinion someone who was not born in the country “does not deserve” to represent Italy.
“If the opportunity to bring in new players presents itself, the doors will be open for them,” Mancini said Monday. “Years ago he said that players born in Italy should be in the national team, but the problem did not exist and the world has changed.”
“All the European teams have players with multiple nationalities, we have boys trained in our academies and who end up in the senior teams of other nations,” he added.
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In Argentina, on the other hand, there are plenty of forwards and Retegui did not seem to have many options to open a gap in the national team.
“He doesn’t have if he could be in Argentina or not because we weren’t convinced to call him up,” Albiceleste coach Lionel Scaloni said on Tuesday. “We cannot say that he is not going to Italy because, perhaps, he can come to Argentina. When one is not convinced or does not believe that it is the moment, it does not make sense to cut the trajectory. Let’s hope it goes well”.
For England, the clash in Naples will be the first since the defeat by France in the World Cup quarter-finals and will give striker Harry Kane the opportunity to become the team’s all-time goalscorer. Kane and Wayne Rooney share the record with 53 goals.
England will miss Marcus Rashford after the Manchester United forward was sidelined with a “bump”. Manager Gareth Southgate quoted Ivan Toney, although he was betting the Brentford striker could face suspension for breaking the envelope rules.
The last time Italy played at home was also against England, with the Azzurri winning 1-0 at the San Siro in September in the Nations League. Mancini’s team also defeated England on penalties in the Euro 2020 final.
That consecration redeemed Italy after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but the team is again trying to vindicate itself after also missing last year’s tournament in Qatar.