Football Features

Serie A’s greatest foreign import? Famous players who could have represented Italy

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 15:30, 14 November 2022 | Updated: 15:51, 14 November 2023

It’s a consistently hot topic of conversation in Italy regarding their national team and former manager Roberto Mancini even reignited the issue back when Inter Milan were employing him.

“The Italy national team should be Italian,” he said. “Maybe we find some players in the Italy squad who are not Italian but only have some relatives here, but this is only my opinion. I think that an Italian player deserves to play in the Italian national team while those who were not born in Italy, even if they have [Italian] relatives, don’t deserve it. We do so much to bring through young players and then we go and call up the foreigners [who are eligible to play] for Italy.”

His opinion has understandably changed. Emerson, Rafael Tolói and Jorginho, all born outside Italy, were part of the Azzurri’s championship-winning squad at Euro 2020. But there are, of course, exceptions. Footballers who could have played for Italy (either through birthright or parentage) but chose to represent another nation. Here are seven notable examples.



Edinson Cavani

  • International team: Uruguay
  • International caps: 136

A feared marksman across three seasons at Napoli, where he bagged 104 goals across 138 appearances in all competitions, Edinson Cavani born in Salto, Uruguay, would leave his boyhood club Danubio in 2007 for Palermo. Though he represented La Celeste at youth level, Cavani could have been simultaneously leading the line for Italy as his grandparents were from Maranello, but he’d snub gli Azzurri and ever since debuting at international level, the South American powerhouse has benefited from his ice-cold finishing. Cavani netted 58 goals, before calling time on his Uruguay career in 2022, which makes him La Celeste’s second all-time leading scorer behind the relentless Luis Suárez (68).

Paulo Dybala

  • International team: Argentina
  • International caps: 38

Heralded as Lionel Messi’s heir, Paulo Dybala’s path to representing Argentina was an interesting journey. For one, there was more than one nation that could have given him a home. The most surprising was Poland, where his grandfather was born and raised before emigrating to Argentina, and then there was Italy, where Dybala has played his domestic football since 2012. But the Roma playmaker would have felt uncomfortable wearing either of their colours. “I feel 100 per cent Argentinian,” he said. “I wouldn’t be happy in a national team that didn’t feel like mine, to hear an anthem that isn’t my own, in colours that don’t belong to me.”

Dunga

  • International team: Brazil
  • International caps: 91

It’s fair to say there was no shortage of quality Italian midfielders in the 1980s and 90s but you could have seen room being made for Dunga, who turned out for Fiorentina with distinction. Being of Italian descent, he was eligible for a call-up but the Ijuí-born footballer earned a first Brazil cap in 1987, the same year Dunga moved to Europe by joining Pisa from Vasco da Gama, and seven years later in the United States, he’d lead Carlos Alberto Parreira’s men to World Cup glory.

Mauro Icardi

  • International team: Argentina
  • International caps: 8

“I had the option to play for Italy. I got a call-up for the under-21s and I had to fight with Sampdoria because I didn’t want to go, I wanted to play for Argentina.”

These are the words of Rosario native Mauro Icardi, whose grandparents were Italian-born. Italy’s loss hasn’t exactly been Argentina’s gain as, to date, Icardi has made sporadic appearances for La Albiceleste (eight caps won since 2013 and one goal scored) through no fault of his own as competition for attacking places is strong.

Enzo Scifo

  • International team: Belgium
  • International caps: 84

Before the emergence of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, the undisputed greatest and most stylish Belgian footballer was Enzo Scifo, who grew up in La Louvière, Wallonia, and was born to Italian parents from Sicily. This naturally made him eligible for the Azzurri, but Scifo wasn’t on their radar as he built up his reputation at Anderlecht, thus earning him a first Belgium cap. He’d soon move to his parent’s homeland when Inter Milan came knocking and although his was a brief stay, Scifo did enjoy a successful spell at Torino, where he continues to be idolised.

Alex Telles

  • International team: Brazil
  • International caps: 12

There was the possibility of Alex Telles donning Italy’s famous blue jersey before Tite called him up in March 2019. The 30-year-old left-back, who holds Italian citizenship as well as enjoying a brief loan spell at Inter Milan, even welcomed the opportunity and stated that he feels Italian, but nothing transpired. In a different world, Telles could have been lining up against Luke Shaw (his former competition at Manchester United) in the Euro 2020 final.

Javier Zanetti

  • International team: Javier Zanetti
  • International caps: 143

Quite possibly the greatest foreign-born Serie A player of all time, Javier Zanetti redefined what it means to be a leader across a near two-decade spell at Inter Milan, and he’s still working there today as the club’s vice-president. Zanetti, a proud son of Buenos Aires, actually debuted for Argentina a couple of months before leaving home for Milan but his parents were of Italian origin, which technically means Zanetti is another who could have played for Italy, even though they were born elsewhere. The possibility of him in a defensive cohort featuring Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini would be tantamount to cheating.

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