Leave Giuseppe Rossi alone.
Holding an American passport doesn’t mean you can’t call your best friend in Sao Paulo anymore, nor does it come with a requirement to cut your ancestral ties. As Americans, especially in today’s political environment, there’s a premium on loving America, even though no one ever really explains what that means or how to properly love the homeland. From what I can gather, there’s a camp that emphasizes love and respect for the tangential, focusing on flags, moments of silence, pins, abstract freedom, guns and random citizens who take it upon themselves to protect our borders. This strain of political thought often elevates love of objects over ideas, such as loving the physical flag rather than the freedoms that the flag is supposed to represent.
On the appreciation to love spectrum, most Americans probably fall in a safe zone when it comes to the exercise of allegiance. But is loving America meant to completely encompass one’s entire being? Are people supposed to develop amnesia regarding generations of family abroad, generations whose actions and sacrifices ultimately enabled present generations to be American? There’s a lot of room for patriotism between recent immigrants and the purveyors of rigid Americanness. To be American means nothing and everything. Americanness is the freedom to be difficult to define. Whether people accept it or not, Giuseppe Rossi’s decision to play for Italy is rooted in what it means to be American.
Born and bred in New Jersey, Giuseppe Rossi grew up just like many Americans. He went to a regular school, played suburban soccer, and like many Americans, has parents who were born overseas. Sounds pretty average so far. But Rossi’s soccer ability wasn’t average. At the age of thirteen, Rossi’s exceptional ability led his family back to Italy where he joined the youth set up at Parma. From there, Rossi went on to Manchester United, then off on loan spells to Newcastle and Parma, finally ending up in Spain at his current club, Villarreal. While meandering around the old continent, twenty-three year old Rossi found his way to the front door of the Italian World Cup squad after years of rejecting advances from the U.S. to join the Stars and Stripes. Rossi’s decision to shun America and represent Italy has unfortunately drawn the ire of many an American, sometimes to the extent of questioning Rossi’s patriotism.
Rossi’s decision has nothing to do with appreciating America. Last time I checked, rooting for another country or even deciding to compete for another country in sport doesn’t amount to treason. Representing another country in sport also doesn’t mean that you lack affection for your birth country. These are stances that should be able to co-exist in American life today.
Americans seemed quite welcoming when German-born Thomas Dooley, Netherlands native Ernie Stewart, and Preki, born in the former Yugoslavia, decided to represent the Stars and Stripes. At that point, there wasn’t much of a focus on patriotism. We just checked to make sure the paperwork was in order in time to compete. The American soccer community has always been relatively welcoming of foreign-born players who want to play for the U.S. But as the first U.S.-born player to have a legitimate chance of playing for a world soccer power, Rossi is different. He’s doing the reverse commute. That’s why his decision cuts so deeply for some U.S. supporters.
Given the same option, you wonder whether other U.S. youth players would decide to play for France, England, Argentina or Brazil if they had a shot at being full internationals, particularly if they had deep family connections to any of these traditional soccer powers. Would we condemn these players as traitors? I hope not, because doing so incorrectly presupposes that a person can only have one home. In practice, particularly in the United States, we know that not to be true.
Like Rossi, many American citizens have connections that extend beyond our borders. Some connections are distant, requiring people to go back several generations to find their roots, but for others, relationships to another motherland are much closer. Disassociating oneself from an ancestral home can be challenging when close family relationships still exist. These aren’t connections that one easily discards with the acquisition of a passport, whether by birth or naturalization.
The dirty little secret is that we Americans, we’re not all the same. We didn’t all become American in the same way, yet we’re often expected to be the same kind of pre-packaged American. But America is no longer just baseball and apple pie. America is also risotto and bolognese, choripan and empanadas, and masala and roti. There is no American purity; it’s a myth. Our entire national existence is infused with external influences. Although some seem to view Americanness as involving a singular love, a singular interest, and a longing for the traditional, America 2.0 is, in reality, multi-faceted, fluid and culturally confusing. One of the implications of living in this sort of America is that sometimes professionals like Rossi have multiple, often conflicting identities and allegiances. And that should be fine, especially in sport.
Is it feasible that Giuseppe Rossi may have longed for Italian football while watching generations of successful Italian national teams with his Italian family? Absolutely. American families sit around and root for their ancestral homeland all the time. It’s a pastime that’s as American as, well, Sbarro Pizza. Should we let Rossi back in the country? Sure, he’s a citizen, born and bred in Jersey. But if he comes back, say in a 2018 or 2022 World Cup in an Italian National Team jersey, he deserves stick just like any other member of the Italian side. However, I won’t take it to questioning his Americanness, simply because being American is complicated. The traitor talk needs to be reserved for life and death matters, not sport. It’s America’s liberties that give Rossi the freedom to be American, hold on to his roots and explore opportunities in whatever way he sees fit under the law.
These are the narratives that make international soccer so exciting. But the Rossi situation is particularly interesting because rarely in U.S. soccer do we have to deal with the problem of losing world class talent. Our issue has been that we’ve had a hard time developing it. Rossi is part of the first wave of potentially world class players to choose to take their talents elsewhere, but it’s unlikely he will be the last. America’s multiculturalism is what makes the country so great, but it is also what will open the door to more and more players considering playing for other nations as the level of play in the U.S. continues to improve. That’s the reality. American soccer may not have inspired a sufficient number of players to discard their dreams of playing for their ancestral homeland for putting on the red, white and blue yet, especially when their ancestral homelands are world powers with histories of legendary teams and globally-recognized, talismanic figures.
Rossi believes he is good enough to play on a side capable of winning a World Cup now. His Italian connection is not just a random selection based on a tenuous relationship, but a connection tied to a country that holds his family’s roots. He may be the only American player in his generation with a realistic chance of playing on a World Cup winning side. Could we have used him? Without question. But I can’t hate his decision given the context. His behavior is not that of an international mercenary. This is the behavior of a player who latched on to ancestry and a once in a lifetime opportunity. Who knows whether we would have made the same decision given the opportunity, but at the end of the day, I respect his choice and wish him the best of luck, that is, until he comes up against the U.S. … again. If that ever happens, for me, he’s Italian for the day, just like he was during the 2009 Confederations Cup when he scored two goals against the U.S. But that’s another story, and one I don’t like to think about.