As the World Cup begins in Qatar, one major nation is conspicuous by its absence.
Since winning the tournament in 2006, Italy has failed to qualify for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and failed to get out of the Group Stage of the competition in 2010 and 2014.
That’s all while winning Euro 2020 under boss Roberto Mancini last summer too.
Yet while the Azzurri will undoubtedly be missed, there are plenty of links to the Bel Paese to look out for this winter.
Italian born youngsters
When Lilian Thuram won both the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championships in 2000 with France, the defender was playing his club football elsewhere.
Thuram spent five years with the legendary Parma side of the late 1990s, before spending another half decade with Juventus between 2001 and 2006.
His son Marcus was born in Parma in 1997 and is one of three players born on the peninsula to be representing their countries at this World Cup.
Marcus Thuram will of course be playing for France, having represented Les Bleus at all youth levels, and now a regular at Borussia Mönchengladbach.
A name slightly less familiar will be Walid Cheddira, a Morocco international who plays his domestic football with Bari in Serie B. The 24-year-old was born in Loreto in the Marche region of Italy to Moroccan parents and was named the Serie B Player of the Month in October 2022.
Roma fans may recognize the name Nicola Zalewski, and the Italian first name gives a hint that this Poland international was born on the peninsula.
The 20-year-old was born just outside Rome to Polish parents and came through the Roma youth sector to make his professional debut in the Europa League semi-final with Manchester United in 2021.
The Argentina connection
Between 1857 and 1940, Italians – mainly from the south – began arriving in Argentina to start a new life. It’s thought that almost 50% of people in Argentina have some kind of Italian family history.
So it’s no surprise that the Argentina national side has several players with Italian heritage, and that includes a certain Lionel Messi.
Angelo Messi – Lionel’s great-grandfather – was born in Recanati in Italy before moving to Rosario, Argentina with his wife Maria. His mother’s surname is Cuccittini, meaning that the superstar has Italian ancestry on both sides of the family.
It’s a similar story with another big Argentina star, who is no stranger to Italy. Paulo Dybala moved to Serie A with Palermo in 2012, before earning a high-profile move to Juventus in 2015, and now plays his football in the capital with Roma.
With Neapolitan heritage on his mother’s side, Dybala was once approached to play for Italy before he established himself with the Albiceleste.
"I was asked to play for Italy and I was very appreciative,” the dynamic forward told Italy’s Vanity Fair Magazine. “I was 19 and I said 'no, thank you.' It was very hard, but I am Argentinian and it would have been deceit."
Messi and Dybala are joined by Ángel Di María, and Franco Armani – cool surname, right? – and Guido Rodríguez as players in the Argentina squad with Italian heritage, and Nicolás Tagliafico even holds both Italian and Argentinian passports.
What could have been
He’s currently heading to the World Cup with Brazil, but it might have been very different for Alex Telles. Playing his club football on loan at Valencia from Manchester United, the experienced left-back once declared his love for Italy.
"I may be Brazilian, but my great-grandparents are Italian and I feel Italian," he told Gazzetta Dello Sport back in 2016. "I just have to think about doing a good job at Porto and if I do well here, then maybe something will happen."
That call evidently never came, even though Telles had spent the 2015/16 campaign on loan at Inter, and he went on to first represent Brazil’s senior side in 2019.
A Neapolitan hero
Playing in a front line with Marek Hamšík and Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani was pure dynamite for Napoli between 2010 and 2013.
Scoring 104 goals in 138 games, the striker firmly made it into the hearts of the Napoli fans and proved himself as one of the best Serie A strikers in the modern era.
It was perhaps no wonder that Cavani felt at home, as the Uruguay international holds an Italian passport. His paternal grandparents originated from Maranello but emigrated first to Argentina before finally settling in Montevideo.
“It’s a piece of my heart for many reasons,” the striker admitted recently. “My first two sons, Bautista and Lucas live in Naples, they are 11 and 9, they play football and of course, they support Napoli.
“The club has a special place in my heart, those three years were the starting point of my career that continued at PSG and Manchester United. I am a private person, but the affection I received in Naples moved something inside me.”
At the age of 35, this will be Cavani’s fourth and likely last World Cup. Although he will be representing Uruguay, the striker is surely taking a piece of Italy with him.
Chloe Beresford is an experienced Serie A expert, with previous bylines at Forbes, The Guardian, AS Roma and many more. She has appeared on the radio at Sirius XFM and on the BBC Euro Leagues podcast. Watching live games in Italy and experiencing all the country has to offer are her biggest passions.