Heated Immigration Debate in Italy After National Soccer Team Selects Brazilian-Born Player

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ROME -- The selection of a Brazilian-born player for Italy's national football team is fueling a debate with racial and xenophobic overtones in a country that has supplied millions of immigrants to other nations but struggles to integrate its own.

A lawmaker with the Northern League government party, known for its anti-immigrant rhetoric, claims Italy should promote homegrown talent rather than making room for "leftovers" from other nations.

Amauri, a Brazilian native getting his first chance to line up for the country where he has spent most of his career, says he will play "against prejudice."

"I wanted Italy," Amauri said from the Azzurri's training ground in Monday's Gazzetta dello Sport. "I'm happy and proud."

Amauri's call-up for Tuesday's friendly against the Ivory Coast in London was part of efforts by new coach Cesare Prandelli to inject some fresh blood into the team after Italy's embarrassing group-stage exit at the World Cup in South Africa.

The 30-year-old Amauri is a late bloomer who has never played either for his country of birth or Italy. He gained Italian citizenship in April by way of marriage and had hoped to be picked for the World Cup, but he was in poor form last season and was omitted from the team.

Also getting a call-up for Italy is Mario Balotelli, a talented 19-year-old of Ghanian descent who has been the subject of racial taunts from fans at games in Italy for the past two seasons.

"I will play against prejudice," Amauri said. "Mario and I will do everything we can to make these people change their minds."

If Balotelli's case has highlighted the plague of racism in Italian stadiums, Amauri's call-up has brought to the fore the issue of naturalization of foreign-born players.

The topic of dual nationality and choice was apparent at the recent World Cup. While many played for their countries of birth, some didn't. According to current FIFA rules, players with dual nationalities are free to switch sides at any age, as long as they haven't appeared in an official game.

The debate is especially sensitive in Italy, a country where mass immigration is a relatively new phenomenon and where tensions occasionally flare up between Italians and a growing immigrant community. While Italy's long coastline does attract large numbers of immigrants every year, mostly from North Africa, many try to move on to other European nations, or are repatriated.

"Talent and Naturalized Players: A message for the Future," was the headline of a front-page editorial this weekend in La Repubblica, welcoming Prandelli's choices.

The newspaper said Prandelli had launched "a political signal, rather than a technical one: The new Italy is open to (naturalized players), and hopefully, like Germany, to the sons of immigrants."

In the wake of Italy's flop at the World Cup, many Italian commentators praised the German squad, which featured among others a Brazilian-born player and one of Turkish descent, as a model for the future.

But not all agree.

"The real representatives of this country aren't its foreigners," said Northern League lawmaker Davide Cavallotto. "What Brazil refused, we took," he said, calling Amauri a "leftover."

Cavallotto reportedly urged the Italian football federation to start promoting homegrown talent, as it did in the past with players like Roberto Baggio and Francesco Totti.

The Northern League is not new to such provocative comments. During the World Cup, the party's radio station drew rebuke when it rooted for Paraguay in Italy's opening game and party officials said Italy players were overpaid.

Daniele De Rossi, Italy's captain in Tuesday's friendly, said the decision to call up players does not rest with the League.

Speaking to reporters Monday, he noted that Mauro Camoranesi, an Argentine-born midfielder, had been part of Italy's squad for years, including when the Azzurri won the 2006 World Cup.

"As far as I and my teammates are concerned, whoever comes into this group will be well received," De Rossi said.

For his part, Prandelli is holding firm.

"There will always be controversy," he said. "I'm going ahead, because I think it's the right path."