Terranova da Sibari is a small commune of around 5,000 inhabitants in the Calabria region of Southern Italy. In the 1950s, many Terranovesi chose to emigrate to Argentina, looking for a better life. One can only imagine the scenes in the provincial town when in 2011, one of the world’s most famous footballers: Diego Milito of Internazionale arrived for the first time in the place that his nonni (grandparents) Salvatore Milito (01/05/13) and Caterina Borelli (26/04/18) had left in the 1950’s.
Salvatore and Caterina gave birth to a son named Jorge not long after arriving in Bernal, Argentina. Jorge grew up to marry a local girl named Mirta Alcica Elizar and together they had two sons, Diego and Gabriel – born just one year apart. The brothers would both go on to become professional footballers and even lined up against each other in the 2009-10 Champions League semi-finals; Diego playing in attack for Inter and Gabriel playing in defence for Barcelona.
Just six months after the Nerazzurri’s historic treble winning season under the leadership of Jose Mourinho; Milito visited Terranova da Sibari where some of his cousins still live today. The striker had been a revelation during that season, scoring 30 goals including both goals in Inter’s 2-0 triumph over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. The Serie A and UEFA player of the year was greeted in the streets, decorated with Italian and Argentine national flags. There was also a feast of local dishes in a showcase of regional cuisine. Milito was granted honourary citizenship of the town of his ancestors and in the emotionally charged ceremony he told the crowd: “I grew up with my grandparents and they told me how much this place meant to them.”
Growing up in Argentina had been hard for the Milito family. In 2002, the country was just emerging from a four year depression which saw the economy shrink by 28 percent. Furthermore, after the kidnapping of their father Jorge on the streets of Ezpaleta, brothers Diego and Gabriel were forced to pay a ransom of 100,000 peso (roughly £25,000) for his release. Not long after, in 2003, both brothers headed to clubs in Europe: Gabriel to Real Zaragoza and Diego to Genoa.
It wasn’t until 2009 that Diego’s career exploded with Inter, his spell culminating in 75 goals in five years, however his international career with La Albiceleste was intermittent at best. After being left out of the 2006 World Cup squad and only featuring twice in the 2010 World Cup under Diego Maradona, he was included in the 2011 Copa América at the height of his career along with brother Gabriel only to be left out of all of the matches. His Inter teammates from the legendary treble winning season; Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti all had more consistent international careers.
The career of “El Príncipe” (Milito’s nickname due to his striking physical similarity to Uruguayan footballer Enzo Francescoli) came full circle last season when he returned to his first team; Racing Club based in Avallaneda. His goals helped the team win the league in his first season, their first league title since 1966. Despite his glittering Serie A career, this title give him as much pride as any other achievement and he spoke about “crowning his career” and “giving joy to the people”.
Milito’s Inter teammate Javier Zanetti is also of Italian descent but unlike “El Príncipe”, he has not returned to his native Argentina after his legendary 19-year Nerazzurri playing career came to an emotional end in 2014. After an astonishing 858 appearances, playing until the age of 40, the versatile defender’s number four jersey has been retired by the club and his ultimate loyalty rewarded with a Vice Presidency role. His international record echoes his domestic longevity in terms of appearances as he is the most capped player in the history of Argentina with 145 caps and five goals.
Although seemingly settled in Italy, “El Tractor” has not forgotten his working class Argentine roots, having become an ambassador for FIFA SOS children’s villages; which encompasses six impoverished sites in his homeland. His main charity work however, is the Fundación PUPI, which he established in 2001 alongside his wife Paula with the aim of tackling poverty, social exclusion and inequality. Visitors to Zanetti’s adopted city of Milan can enjoy a taste of his native cuisine in his very own restaurant, appropriately named “El Gaucho”.
The Argentinians in the 2009-10 team were instrumental in their phenomenal success, therefore it is unsurprising that Inter have carried on the tradition of bringing successful Argentinians into the squad. Last season’s joint Capocannoniere (top scorer) in Serie A was Mauro Icardi, who netted 22 Serie A goals for the Nerazzurri.
Born in Rosario, Icardi moved to the Canary Islands aged just six. As an Italian passport holder, he could have chosen to follow in the footsteps of modern day Oriundo Mauro Camaronesi, who made 55 appearances for Italy, despite being born in Argentina. Notwithstanding the stiff competition from the current attacking crop of Carlos Tevez, Sergio Agüero; Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuaín and former Napoli man Eziquiel Lavezzi – Icardi’s international career for Argentina was never in doubt. When he made his first appearance (deputising for the injured Lionel Messi) he stated: “Everybody knows I am Argentinian and the only Italian thing about me is my passport. I’ve always waited for this moment. I’ve played for the youth selections and now to wear the shirt of my senior national team is a dream and an achievement.”
The flow of young Argentinians to Italian clubs is unwavering. Attacking midfielder Leandro Paredes, compared by the press to Juan Román Riquelme, is currently on loan at Empoli from AS Roma and has already made appearances for the Argentina U15 and U17 sides. Also drawing attention from Serie A is Gustavo Bou, a 25-year-old striker who has scored 17 goals in 36 appearances alongside Diego Milito at Racing Club.
If the trio of Argentinian Oriundi who won the World Cup with Italy in 1934 were alive today, there is no doubt that they would be astonished at how their Serie A legacy has endured. From the sheer volume of Argentinians who have made the journey to Italy to play professional football to those who have become legendary players. Perhaps most inspiring is the story of those who have returned to connect with their ancestors on the peninsula. But on both a personal and professional level, the influence of Argentinians in Serie A continues to be unparalleled.