Born in Brazil, but with roots in Rovigo, Thiago Motta is fast becoming a symbol of the new Italy. James Horncastle reports
It started with a hat-trick and a historic 9-4 win against France at the Velodrome Sempione in Milan on January 18, 1920. Ermanno Aebi, a striker with a Swiss father and Italian mother, who had first kicked a ball at school in Neuchatel before coming to the attention of Giovanni Paramithiotti, a founder of a new club called Internazionale, famously became the first Oriundo to play and score for Italy.
He started a rich tradition. Twenty-five players would follow in his footsteps and hit the back of the net for the old country - 12 Argentines, five Brazilians, a Paraguayan, a South African and a Scotsman all of Italian descent from Raimundo Orsi and Omar Sivori to Jose Altafini and Mauro Camoranesi. A new name was added to that list on Friday night, that of Thiago Motta.
His winning goal against Slovenia, a low shot from the left-hand side of the box after a neat back-heeled one-two with Federico Balzaretti, was celebrated keenly 200 miles away by a former bar owner and Juventus fan in the village of Polesella called Luciano Fogagnolo, the third cousin of Thiago Motta. "When he scored in Slovenia I kissed the photo that he sent me through his parents," Fogagnolo gushed.
His great great grandfather would no doubt be proud too. Born in 1897, Fortunato Fogagnolo went in search of a new life, embarking for Brazil where he set up as a farmhand. Motta's family never forgot their roots. Indeed, it was the midfielder's dual nationality, as well as his talent, that persuaded Barcelona to offer the young Thiago a place at La Masia over a decade ago. His father Carlos Roberto even travelled to Polesella to visit the birthplace of his ancestors during a holiday in 2001.
"My family come from Italy," Motta said amid talk of a call up to Cesare Prandelli's squad before a friendly with Germany back in February. "Perhaps I didn't have the luck of being born here, but I feel absolutely Italian. I know the anthem, but I don't know how to sing it." Although his passport was never in question, Motta's eligibility did come under scrutiny.
After all, he had represented Brazil twice at the Gold Cup in 2003. The then World Cup winners had been invited to field a guest team for the competition held in Mexico and the United States, but rather than fully commit to it, they sent an Under-23 squad - one featuring Kaka, Diego, Robinho and Adriano, which was managed by Ricardo Gomes, a stand-in for the national team's actual Coach Carlos Alberto Parreira.
So with no official caps in the record books, FIFA gave Prandelli the all clear to make Motta the third Oriundo to be picked for Italy during his reign. He already looks likely to have a greater impact and influence than Cristian Ledesma and Amauri.
Stationed in a three-man midfield where the players are encouraged to change positions but not their mentality, Motta's brief is representative of what the Corriere della Sera call 'Prandelli's soft revolution' - that is an effort to invert the tendency of Italian football away from simply relinquishing the initiative and playing on the counter.
Thus far the signs are encouraging. Italy retained the ball and tried to pass against Germany and Slovenia. Motta was central to that approach on both occasions. For once the best players on the pitch were not defenders or counter-attackers, but passers.
"The boss asked us to move the ball, to not be static and to find Antonio Cassano between the lines," he said. "I think that we did it, the central midfield is quality." The jury is still out on Motta's status as an Italian even if a campaign is by now underway in Polesella to make him an honorary resident. His inclusion has been cited as further evidence of a crisis in Italy. Talk last week revolved around La Nazionale being one of Serie B rather than Serie A.
Prandelli, however, is simply being realistic. "We have the get back to basics, starting again with the youth sector and knowing that extraordinary results won't arrive in six months or a year… Thiago Motta forms part of the 'new Italians' category. The argument regarding the Oriundi has been overcome. By now this is the football of the future because in our youth sectors teams are 60 per cent composed of foreign players."
In the meantime, Motta is making the most of his involvement. "It's impossible for it to go any better than this," he says. But with a six-point lead at the top of their group and a seven-match unbeaten run to protect, Italy fans will be hoping the upward curve continues.
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