Playing for your country is viewed by many as the highest accolade a footballer can receive. Almost every legend of the game represented their nation at senior level at least once, with a few notable exceptions. One of those exceptions, Paolo Di Canio, was among the Premier League’s most entertaining talents in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so why did he never play for Italy?
The fact that Di Canio played his club football in England might have hindered his Italy chances. During Di Canio’s peak years, Italian national team bosses favoured Serie A players over those who plied their trade in the Premier League and elsewhere. As a result, the maverick forward never received a look-in at senior level for his country.
Di Canio was also somewhat overshadowed by a generation of incredible Italian attackers. Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri, Enrico Chiesa, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Filippo Inzaghi, Francesco Totti, Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli, Pierluigi Casiraghi, Roberto Baggio and Roberto Mancini were all involved in the national team setup at various stages of Di Canio’s career.
“They have a strange way in Italy”
Never one to mince his words, Paolo Di Canio spoke out about his international exile during his first full season at West Ham United in 1999-2000. At the time, the eccentric Italian wanted national team boss Dino Zoff to call him up due to Alessandro Del Piero and Roberto Baggio’s bad form.
“They have a strange way in Italy,” Di Canio said. “We think that people who play away from our country cannot be any good, that they have chosen to play in an easy league. But I think the most difficult league of all is in England. In Serie A it’s often man against man and slower, but here you have to run for 95 minutes. It’s a battle all of the game.”
In the same interview, Di Canio noted how Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianfranco Zola lost their places in the national team after leaving Italy for Middlesbrough and Chelsea, respectively. He said both men did not stop being great players simply because they departed Serie A to test themselves in England.
Should Italy have capped Paolo Di Canio?
Verdict: Despite the competition for places, I agree with Paolo Di Canio on this one. At the height of his career, Italians rarely got a chance at international level if they played away from Serie A. Had Di Canio continued to play week in and week out for big clubs in Italy instead of moving abroad, he would almost certainly have received a senior call-up at some stage.
Di Canio played for Lazio, Juventus, Napoli and AC Milan between 1985 and 1996 before moving to Scotland to sign for Celtic. The Italian went on to play for Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton Athletic in England between 1997 and 2004 before returning to Italy with Lazio in 2004. In 2008, he retired after two years at Cisco Roma.
While he never played for the senior side, Di Canio did receive a small taste of the international spotlight at youth and B team level. The West Ham icon made nine appearances for Italy Under-21s between 1988 and 1990, scoring twice. He also featured in Italy B’s 1-1 draw with England B in 1989. The Three Lions team that day contained several future stars, including Paul Gascoigne and Tony Adams.