Alessandro Del Piero has been signed as the marquee player for the Delhi Dynamos. The announcement sparked a minor controversy in Italy thanks to an ongoing dispute between Italy and India.
Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone have been held in India since allegedly shooting dead two Indian fishermen, Valentine and Ajesh Binki, in February 2012. At the time, the Italians were part of a military security team protecting a privately-owned cargo ship. They claim that they mistook the fishermen for pirates and fired warning shots into the water.
The Italian government wants the marines to be tried in Italy because the incident took place in international waters. The Indian government, on the other hand, says it has the right to prosecute the Italians as the victims were Indians on board an Indian fishing boat. In some good news for the always-impeccably-groomed Italian sailors, Indian prosecutors have indicated that they will not push for the death penalty, but there is still the risk of up to ten years in jail.
So what does this have to do with a professional footballer taking a job in another country? This doesn’t seem to fall into the same category as national teams boycotting South Africa during the apartheid era, or the tit-for-tat boycotts at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. Or Argentines playing in England during the Falklands War.
And Del Piero has no official role, well, other than being Ambassador for the Asian Cup.
Prominent Italian politician Giorgia Meloni launched an extraordinary rant against Del Piero and others on her Facebook page. She savaged previous leaders of the Italian government, calling them “eunuchs” for failing to bring the Italian sailors home. But she reserved a special level of righteous disappointment for Del Piero, who had batted away calls for him to back out of his Indian deal. Del Piero had responded that “India is not a hostile country”.
Meloni has in turn been criticised for asking a footballer to do what politicians seem incapable of doing.
The President of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, stuck up for one of his region’s favourite sons and had a sly pop at the national government as well. “If Italy finds itself in this situation,” he said, “it’s not Del Piero’s fault but the fault of a government incapable of handling international relations.”
There is a movement (promoted by a blog calling itself la sottile linea rossa – “the thin red line”) that is calling for supporters to wear a yellow ribbon at Serie A games this weekend to show their support for the detained marines.
Interestingly enough, Franco Colomba, the Italian who coaches FC Pune City in the Indian Super League, is under no pressure from Italian politicians to walk away from the club.