MILAN (AP): When Italy and England kick off their European Championship qualifying campaign against each other on Thursday, some of the spotlight will be on a player from Argentina.
Forward Mateo Retegui has been called up for the first time by Italy coach Roberto Mancini, reigniting a debate in the country about selecting foreign-born players for the national team.
Retegui was born in Argentina and has spent his entire playing career in the South American country, representing it internationally at Under-19 and Under-20 level. But he has never played for the senior national team and has Italian citizenship through his maternal grandmother.
Instead of opting to wait for his chance to play for the World Cup winners, the 23-year-old Retegui has responded to the call of the Azzurri, who didn’t even qualify for last year’s tournament.
“We had been following him for some time, he has quality and is a young, bright boy,” Mancini said. “We didn’t think he would say yes, we hope that he can be important.”
Retegui plays for Argentine club Tigre, on loan from Boca Juniors, and was the top scorer in the domestic league last season with 19 goals.
“He reminds me of when (Gabriel) Batistuta arrived in Italy,” Mancini said.
Retegui also tops the current standings, having netted six goals in eight matches.
And he could start on Thursday in Naples, at a stadium named after another — much more famous — Argentine: Diego Maradona.
Mancini has a lack of options up front with Ciro Immobile and Giacomo Raspadori out injured, while Gianluca Scamacca is not fully fit.
“I don’t know why there are so few strikers, we are very limited in attack,” Mancini said. “We have three (Italian) teams in the Champions League quarterfinals, but out of the three teams there are seven, eight Italians at most. This is the reality.”
Italy has a long history of including South American players in the national team after they made a name for themselves in Serie A, with the Brazil-born Jorginho a recent example. But Retegui’s inclusion has sparked more debate, in part because he has never played in Italy and in part because Mancini criticized Antonio Conte for using foreign-born players when the Tottenham coach was in charge of Italy.
Mancini, who was then at Inter Milan, said at the time that “the Italian national team should be Italian” and that he didn’t think someone who wasn’t born in the country “deserves to” play for Italy.
“If there is a chance to get new players we will take them,” Mancini said on Monday. “Years ago I said that players born in Italy should play in the national team, but there was not that problem here yet and the world has changed.
“All the European national teams have players with multiple nationalities, we have boys who have gone through the whole of the youth system with us and then been taken by the senior national team of other nations.”
For England, this will be the first match since losing to France in the World Cup quarterfinals, and provides a chance for striker Harry Kane to become England’s all-time record goal scorer. Kane is currently level with Wayne Rooney on 53 goals for his country.
England is without Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford after the forward pulled out of the squad with what the club described as a “knock” but Southgate has called up Ivan Toney despite the Brentford forward facing a possible suspension for apparently breaching multiple gambling rules.
Italy’s last home match was also against England, with the Azzurri winning 1-0 at San Siro in September in the Nations League.
Mancini’s team also beat England on penalties in the Euro 2020 final.
That triumph was a sort of absolution for Italy after it failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and the Azzurri once again find themselves on the road to redemption after missing out on last year’s tournament in Qatar.
“By now Italy-England has become a classic, a bit like Italy-Germany,” Mancini said. “They have been a great national team for some time, full of talented, strong and technical players.
“They have more options than us for many reasons, but in Naples we want to put in a good performance, play well and start these qualifiers well. It will be a tough match as all the others have been.”