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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three decades of Stranieri

Three decades of Stranieri
In 1980, the ban on signing foreign players was lifted. Giancarlo Rinaldi looks at the consequences of a decision which has changed the face of Italian football
The last team to win Serie A without a single foreigner in their side was Inter. The irony of that sentence will probably not be lost on anyone. Last season they triumphed with just three Italians having featured for them in the entire campaign. How did things change so much in 30 years?

The two Nerazzurri victories of 1979-80 and 2009-10 stand as the bookends to one of the most intriguing periods in Italian football history. In three decades teams from the peninsula have risen to European dominance, collapsed in financial disaster and been ripped apart by a match-rigging scandal. Along the way, they have seen the influence of the Stranieri rise almost year on year. A look at the composition of the sides to have won the Italian League over this period tells its own stark tale.

Italy has always had a love-hate relationship with its overseas stars. By appearance, name and often pay-packet they stand out from the rest of their teammates. That has made them the subject of enormous adulation when they have brought success. But it has also seen them used as scapegoats at times of failure.

In the post-war nation which began to show the first signs of economic recovery in the 1950s, these outsiders brought something extra to the game. Milan fans revelled in their Swedish trio of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, dubbed Gre-no-li for short. Followers of Juventus will never forget their Welsh ‘Gentle Giant’ John Charles or the Argentine madcap precursor to Diego Maradona, Omar Sivori. Meanwhile, by the early 1960s, Inter could savour Spaniard Luis Suarez and Brazilian Jair Da Costa as they built a side which would rule the world.

But while these players brought success at club level, the same could not be said for international football. The Azzurri were not punching their weight as a national team despite a fast-and-loose approach to citizenship which allowed them to cap countless South American born players. Pressure to curb the excessive spending on foreign players and aid the recovery of the boys in blue was growing.

It was a string of footballing disasters which eventually brought matters to a head. Failure to qualify for the 1958 World Cup was followed by a miserable showing in Chile four years later. The finger of blame was pointed at the number of spots in the domestic game being taken away from home-grown talent by foreign stars. It is an argument which may well have a familiar ring to modern day England fans. Unlike the Premiership, however, the Italian game decided to do something about it. In 1965, the shutters came down on the purchase of Stranieri.

The barricades were erected, and slowly but surely the overseas influence dwindled. Players who were already in the country were allowed to remain, although many elected to pack their bags. The exceptions were the likes of Brazilian-born Jose Altafini, by then accepted as an Italian international, who enjoyed a Serie A career for much of the 1970s. Others to have lengthy careers after the embargo included Brazilian ace Amarildo and German star Karl-Heinz Schnellinger.

It is almost impossible to prove, however, if this veto had the desired effect. Certainly the national team did seem to fare better as it won the European Nations in 1968, reached the World Cup Final in 1970, finished fourth in Argentina in 1978 and won the tournament in 1982, a couple of years after the ban was lifted. Many saw the import prohibition as the foundation of that success in Spain.

However, more recent times seem to undermine that argument. Italy reached a World Cup semi-final in 1990, the Final in 1994 and triumphed again in 2006. They also played the Final of Euro 2000. All of which was achieved with a domestic League stuffed full with players from the four corners of the globe.

What does seem clear, however, is that the ban had an adverse impact on Italian club sides. Prior to the ban they overcame early Spanish and Portuguese domination to become one of the driving forces in European football. Milan and Inter enjoyed huge success while Fiorentina also won the Cup-Winners Cup and Roma the Fairs Cities Cup. By the 1970s, however, the Serie A deputation was regularly being brushed aside – often by English outfits.

It was this downturn which eventually saw the ban lifted in the summer of 1980. Eugenio Bersellini’s Inter would be the last Scudetto winners to boast an all-Italian line-up. Initially, teams could only sign one foreign star each – but the face of the game had been changed forever.

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