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 the 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 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 quarter finals, but out of the three teams there are seven, eight Italians at most. This is the reality.”
Italy have 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.
Harry Kane gears up for Italy. Getty Images
But Retegui’s inclusion has sparked more debate, in part because he has never played in Italy and in part because Mancini criticised 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.”
Record beckons Kane
For England, this will be the first match since losing to France in the World Cup quarter finals, 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 are 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 they 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.
It’s a new era for Portugal as they begins European Championship qualifying under a new coach and with Cristiano Ronaldo far away from biggest stadiums.
Portugal starts their qualifying campaign at home against Liechtenstein in Group J on Thursday, with Roberto Martínez debuting as coach and Ronaldo still in the squad.
It will be Ronaldo’s first appearance with Portugal since leaving Europe for Saudi club Al Nassr after a mostly disappointing stint with Manchester United. He is set to break the all-time record of appearances with a national team after tying Bader Al-Mutawa’s mark of 196 outings for Kuwait during last year’s World Cup.
De Bruyne captain
Martínez is taking over Fernando Santos, who quit in December after Portugal’s elimination by Morocco in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.
Striker Jeremy Doku has pulled out of Belgium’s squad for Friday’s qualifier against Sweden and next week’s-friendly in Germany because of a muscle injury.
Belgium trained for the first time on Tuesday under new coach Domenico Tedesco, who named Kevin De Bruyneas the new captain.
⚫ Italy vs England
⚫ Denmark vs Finland
⚫ Portugal vs Liechtenstein Kick-off: 1.15am (Friday), live on Sony Sports Network