Italians Abroad: Ligue 1

Date: 27th May 2020 at 9:05am
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Given that Italy and France share a border along one of the most visited and beautiful coastlines in the world, it is unsurprising that the few Italian footballers to appear in France have generally done so along the French Riviera.

It was the 1930s that Ligue 1 received its first imports from Serie A, with Francesco Rier and Aldo Vollono the most notable, as 1930/31 Scudetto winners with Juventus, moving to Nice and Antibes respectively in 1933.

Although Giuseppe Verk had joined Nimes a year earlier, as did Ernesto Tomasi and Edmondo Della Valle when both moved to Nice, only the latter made a big enough contribution to have appearances noted on official records.

With World War II disrupting footballing activities across the continent for the next decade, France witnessed a significant number of the continent fleeing their homelands and at the end of the 1940s also came the return of Italian footballers to French football.

Having never made a professional appearance in Italy, Aridex Calligaris joined Saint-Etienne in 1945, spending four years with Les Verts, as countryman Pietro Migliaccio, Antonio Scavarini and Cesare Benedetti all signed for Marseille.

As France became an increasingly popular destination, Elpidio Coppa and Angelo Bollano decided to end journeyman careers in Italy with final stops at Rennes and Marseille in 1948.

With several favouring Ligue 1 retirement, in 1949, Roberto Serone, a prolific goalscorer in Serie B and C moved looking to enhance his reputation and won the 1950/51 title with Nice before returning to Italy and eventually joining Torino in the top-flight.

Also part of that title winning Nice side was Aleardo Nani, who had excelled at tennis and basketball before taking French citizenship in 1950 and focusing purely on football. The defender would go on to lift four league titles, including two domestic doubles, during an eight-year spell.

Well into the 1980s, the majority of Italians plying their trade in Ligue 1 had spent little time in the country of their birth, often becoming French nationals, and spent their entire playing careers in the country.

It was 1996 before significant trading between countries improved, when Marseille signed Fiorentina’s Alberto Malusci and Ivan Franceschini was forced to leave a Parma playing above his abilities. Where they failed, though, Roberto Onorati arrived from Genoa and won the French Cup with Nice.

After returning to the Italian market, the following summer Marseille saved recently relegated Fabrizio Ravanelli and were nearly rewarded with the 1998/99 title. Fellow striker Marco Simone had an immediate impact in France, though, winning a domestic cup double with Paris Saint-Germain and being voted 1998 Player of the Season.

Two years later Simone lifted the Ligue 1 crown with Monaco, who formed quite the collection of Italian stars, signing five of the next seven – Christian Panucci, Flavio Roma, Joseph Oshadogan, Christian Vieri and Marco Di Vaio – over the next 10 years.

Although World Cup winner Fabio Grosso joined Lyon in 2007, the new-found wealth of Paris Saint-Germain heralded the arrivals of more in demand stars in the shape of Thiago Motta and Marco Verratti in 2011.

In an attempt to wrestle power back from the capital, Monaco returned to Italy, but Andrea Raggi, Stephan El Shaarawy and Morgan De Sanctis failed to match their predecessors’ achievements. The €25 million signing of 16-year-old striker Pietro Pellegri may yet prove more impactful than all of them.

Despite Verratti collecting medals for fun in Paris or Gianluigi Buffon spending a seemingly ill-advised year at the club, it is arguably former national team colleague, Mario Balotelli, who has made the biggest impact in recent years – both good and bad.

Ahead of the 2016-17 season, Nice appeared the only club willing to give the striker an escape from his Liverpool nightmare and he repaid them with 43 goals in 66 games across two seasons.

However, believing his talents deserved a bigger stage, Balotelli forced a move to French giants Marseille, where, despite eight strikes in 15, he is better remembered for mimicking Francesco Totti’s selfie goalscoring celebration.

Although a handful of Italians continue to operate in the top-flight, it could be a long wait before Verratti is joined by compatriots of similar quality.


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