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Late bloomer Mulenga comes of age at CHAN


The reluctant Italian

Walk the streets of Buenos Aires, Rosario or any Argentinian city and ask passers-by their name. Chances are six out of ten will have an Italian-sounding surname.

Millions of Argentinians share this ancestry and this has always provided Serie A clubs with a chance to import the so-called oriundi (foreigners whose parents or grandparents had left Italy in search of work abroad), some of them have graced the national team and have actually played a great part in its best moments.

Raimondo 'Mumo' Orsi, an Argentinian, scored one of Italy's two goals in the 1934 World Cup final win in Rome, and that team also included other Argentinian oriundi such as Luisito Monti (who'd played in the 1930 World Cup final for Argentina!) and Enrico Guaita, which made a mockery of the 1927 Mussolini-inspired decision by the Italian Football Federation to bar access to the Serie A to players coming from foreign leagues.

Things soon started looking bleak for Italian teams, who had a hard time finding talent, so an exception was soon made for the oriundi.

But not since 1963, when Brasil-born Angelo Benedetto Sormani donned the Azzurri shirt fot the seventh and last time, had a player actually found himself having to choose between nationalities in the fashion Juventus winger Mauro German Serra Camoranesi did a couple of months ago.

Talk about being spoiled for choices. Camoranesi could have waited (perhaps forever, but that's another matter) for an invitation to play for his native Argentina or put his name in the hat for Giovanni Trapattoni's call-ups for the February 12 friendly against Portugal in Genoa.

With his grandparents having left Porto Potenza Picena on Italy's Adriatic coast a few decades ago and having never renounced their Italian citizenship, Camoranesi had officially acquired the same status in late 2002, thus becoming eligible to play for Italy, as he'd never represented Argentina at any level.

After struggling with his decision for a few weeks, Camoranesi chose to represent Italy and this set off a small storm among Italian and Argentinian players alike.

His earlier protestations ('I'm not a traitor, I still feel one hundred per cent Argentinian and have done nothing to find myself in this situation. It's only a football matter, nothing else') dissolved into controversy and Camoranesi made his international debut against the Portuguese with a good solid game on his favourite right side of midfield, where his low centre of gravity, ball control and acceleration have served him well.

Never mind that Gabriel Batistuta had voiced his disapproval to Mauro's decision and Lazio stalwart (and one-time Beckham nemesis) Diego Simeone had told him that the white-and-light blue striped shirt has an 'unmeasurable value' and donning it is a 'sacred task'. But as Mauro said, Argentina had never called him up and that was it.

And besides, he's never really played a big role in Argentinian football, a fact that may have made his decision easier.

The February 12 game was probably the climax of a whirlwind few years for Camoranesi, who at 26 is not exactly a fresh flower in a football world which recycles its icons very quickly.

His checkered professional history is such that his decision not to represent Argentina should have been so surprising: having been born in Tandil, he joined local team Gimnasia y Esgrima at 12, then at 16 moved on to Third Division Aldovisi in Mar del Plata before following a scout's recommendation in 1996 and signing for Mexican club Santos Laguna in Torreon, half a continent away and an unorthodox move for a young Argentinian.

He returned to his home country in 1997 after a three-month spell with Uruguayan side Wanderers, joining Second Division Banfield, but failed to make an impression despite scoring 16 times in 38 games and soon headed back to Mexico, signing for Cruz Azul, where he played 78 games and scored 32 goals between 1998 and 2000.

Verona brought him to Italy that summer and he played two good seasons for them, earning himself a move to Juventus, who bought half of his contract for 7,5 million euros plus the rights to striker Max Vieri, Christian's brother.

Camoranesi has been starring for Juventus ever since, with none other than Alessandro Del Piero calling for his promotion to the starting XI after a few stellar pre-season performances.

Camoranesi has been a starter for most of the season, but his unexpected success has brough up some awkward thoughts for Juventus' renowned management 'Triade' of Antonio Giraudo, Roberto Bettega and calciomercato guru (though most people use less flattering terms when referring to him) Luciano Moggi.

The Bianconeri had bought him initially as cover for Gianluca Zambrotta or Pavel Nedved, but Camoranesi beat out the Italian international, who's had to be happy with a berth on the left side in defence. Camoranesi's performances have meant Juventus must make a decision on him soon.

Mauro's agent has been making the predictable and slightly annoying noises about his client being underpaid - which may be true by other Juve players' standards as he earns about 600,000 euros a year, which didn't prevent him from unsuccessfully bidding 15,000 euros for a pair of Diego Maradona's boots.

Camoranesi: In dispute
Camoranesi: In dispute

Juve now find themselves in the position of having to make up their mind on Camoranesi. Will they sign all of him - which they did not do last summer, when they probably had reservations about his ability to perform consistently for a big club - and buy the remaining half of his contract, or will they allow him to go back to Verona and sign for another club, perhaps Real Madrid who could then add another sticker to their 'Football Stars of the World' 2003 collection?

It appears Juve have already made a move towards the future by taking out an option on another Argentinian midfielder, Palermo's 21-year-old Mario Alberto Santana, whom some see - after some grooming - as a possible replacement for Camoranesi, just like Italian Under 21 star Andrea Gasbarroni who's on loan at Sampdoria.

Despite some of their more delusional fans' pretensions of 'nobility' and 'style', Juventus have stood out in recent years among top Italian football clubs for their (successful) ruthlessness in business dealings, and if they believe Camoranesi, although one of the stars of the season, is not worth breaking the bank for as he's not as versatile as Zambrotta and other Bianconeri, we may be in for some surprises in the next few days.

And leaving might not break Camoranesi's heart after all.

Apart from a soft spot for Maradona which is perhaps written by law in every Argentinian's birth certificate, he recently stated he'd first followed Italian football by supporting the Gullit and Van Basten vintage AC Milan side which dominated Italian and European football in the late Eighties. Perhaps his future lies at the San Siro.

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