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Will Mario Balotelli And Sebastian Giovinco Ever Get Back To The Italian National Team?

As international football heaves its bloated corpse over the horizon of our collective attentions, trying to find any kernel of interest becomes increasingly tough. Because of this, we have the British Isles wrestling with the political absurdity of trying to cram as many poppies as possible into one fixture, Lionel Messi hoping that colouring in his tattoos will help Argentina win in Brazil, someone called Radamel Falcao starting to scoring goals again and a certain section of North London declaring war on the sovereign state of Chile due to the possibility of one man’s muscle tear.

Indeed, British interest in Chilean affairs hasn’t been this high since Maggie Thatcher.

Italy, as ever, is doing things a bit differently. Under new boss Giampiero Ventura, the Azzurri have enjoyed a low-key start. After a better-than-could-be-expected summer, the squad has stayed largely the same. As is tradition, Italy will qualify for the next tournament without really excelling and then (ideally) will start moving up through the gears once they’ve arrived in Russia.

So, to find the interesting stories regarding the Italy squad, we need to look beyond the selection itself. In fact, the most interesting thing about this side is the names who have, for reasons other than injury, not made the cut. For various reasons, they’re players who could conceivably be called up but have been told that their services will not be required. Gradually, they are becoming the forgotten men of Italian football. But who are they?

We should start with the man who is closest to the squad. This summer past, in fact, Graziano Pellè was near-enough a sure starter for the national side. Forming a traditional Big Man/Little Man partnership with oriundio Eder, Pellè built on his Southampton form and played well in the European Championships. Then he was sold to China. Now playing for Shandong Luneng, Pellè is (surprisingly) one of the best-paid footballers in the world. He is certainly the best-paid Italian.

However, Andrea Belotti, Ciro Immobile, Leonardo Pavoletti, Eder, Manolo Gabbiadini and Simone Zaza are the selected forwards, even though only the first three are in anything like a run of form at the moment. Pellè has played for the national team very recently, so why has he been left out? It all stems from the last time the squad got together.

A few weeks back, Italy slogged their way to a 1-1 draw with Spain. Pellè played and was substituted when his side were a goal down. As he left the field, the striker refused to shake the manager’s hand. It proved to be quite the incident.

Pellè was dismissed from the squad, exiled before Italy played (and beat) Macedonia. The relationship between the two men is now strained. For Pellè, this means not being picked. Until such time as an apology is made, it’s likely that the China-based striker will remain excluded from the national side.

While it might be fair to say that Pellè’s exclusion from the squad is (at least partially) down to the player, few would suggest that Sebastian Giovinco has done anything to offend Ventura.

Playing for Toronto FC in MLS, the diminutive playmaker has been in fine form. The Canadian side is built around the former Juventus player and Giovinco is the best player in the league. So, when Ventura was asked why Giovinco was not selected, his response caused a great deal of consternation.

“The reality” Ventura said, “is that [Giovinco] plays in a league that doesn't count for much."

The belief that a player could thrive in a lower profile, less technically able league is enough that any successes in, for instance, MLS are taken with a grain of salt in Italy. It is believed that the player might well thrive when facing inferior opposition but will struggle against stronger opponents. Ventura’s comments have sparked a war of words across the Atlantic, with fans and even the player’s club weighing in on the issue.

However, though Ventura’s remarks might have been less than diplomatic, they are not without merit. The majority of Italian players ply their trade in Italy. Those who go abroad, especially to leagues with lesser reputations, are seen as not good enough to make it in Serie A.

Exceptions exist. Verratti at PSG is a clear example, as is Criscito at Zenit. But the fact that Giovinco has played in both Serie A and the national side and not excelled is evidence enough for the coach. It is not that Giovinco is so talented that an allowance should be made, nor that his skill set is unique. Unless Giovinco somehow demonstrates that his skills demand a call up, then he will remain in the international wilderness. Right now, Italy aren’t really missing out.

And finally, we get to the question of Mario Balotelli. Unlike Pellè, Balotelli has not offended this particular coach. Indeed, he has never played for him.

Unlike Giovinco, Balotelli does possess an enthralling abundance of natural talent. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that Balotelli is more talented not only that Pellè and Giovinco, but more so than any other Italian striker. He has played for big clubs, won big trophies, and is currently in a rich vein of form, playing fantastically well for Nice in Ligue Un and the Europa League.

More than any other player in this article, Balotelli has the form, the skillset, and the talent to demand a place in the squad. But again, it has not materialized.

When asked about Balotelli, Ventura admitted that no one was questioning the player’s technical ability. A quick look at his performances in Euro 2012 should be enough to demonstrate that Mario has everything needed to become an elite player. But, as ever, the question comes down to attitude. In the past, Balotelli has been accused of not applying the effort and energy required to match his talents.

Too often in the news for the wrong reasons (though often in untrue stories), controversy has reigned supreme. Though it should be mentioned that much of this attention was not courted and was disproportionately negative, Balotelli himself has admitted that in the past he only dedicated a fraction of his efforts to training and working hard.

Now, however, Mario says that he is beginning to apply himself. After an electric start in the south of France, his side are three points clear at the top of the table. Praise has been thrown up from a myriad of sources. But Ventura has not been convinced. According to the new manager, Mario has not changed.

Two months, Ventura said, is not enough for someone to “change who they are.” Like many Italians, Ventura remains unconvinced of this new, assiduous version of Balotelli.

As Italy inevitably make hard work of qualifying for the World Cup, the manager’s decision might well change. Injuries, apologies, and chance could all play a role in bringing any of the above players back into the fold. If Zaza, for example, continues to be godawful for West Ham and Balotelli continues to take Ligue Un by storm, how long until the manager is forced to turn to the forgotten men of Italian football? For now, however, they remain on the periphery.

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