For most, a call up to play for your nation would be an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up. But for 18-year-old Cristian Volpato, it’s much more complex. Volpato was born in Sydney’s inner-West to Italian parents and can represent either Australia or Italy on the international stage. He grew up playing youth football for the academies of Sydney FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers. But before he could make in impact in the A-League, Volpato made the move to AS Roma, where he’s since established himself in the Italian giants first team.
Volpato scored the winning goal in Roma’s clash with Hellas Verona this week. He’s worked into a prominent role for the Giallorossi and is a fixture on the Italian under-19 national team. With the Socceroos lacking creative attacking talent, there are calls for Volpato to be selected in the Australian squad for the world cup this month. But Socceroos fans are fearing Volpato already has his heart set on representing Italy.
Roma were level with Hellas Verona at 1-1 on Tuesday when Volpato came on as a substitute. Manager Jose Mourinho obviously hoped his young star could make an impact to help win the match, but he probably didn’t expect Volpato to play the way he did. In the 88th minute Volpato rocketed a strike into the back of the net, giving Roma a late lead.
The 18-year-old prodigy wasn’t done there. Just four minutes later, Volpato set up the match-sealing goal, providing an assist for Stephan El Shaarawy in added time. The game was Volpato’s first appearance in the Serie A this season and Volpato seemed just as shocked as everyone else to have made an immediate impact, “The manager called me up, I hadn’t even warmed up or anything. I’m really happy to have come, score and change the match,” Volpato said in a post-match interview.
Roma’s manager is the legendary Jose Mourinho, who has coached some of the biggest stars in football, including the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Eden Hazard and Mesut Ozil. Mourinho expressed a great deal of confidence in his young star, “I believed in the talent of the young boy and his creativity and his eye for goal,” Mourinho said after the game. “He’s young, he has a lot still to learn every day, but he’s already at the level required.”
Volpato’s stunning rise at one of the biggest clubs in football presents a selection headache for the Socceroos. Volpato is yet to play for the senior national teams of either Australia or Italy, but he has represented Italy’s youth national teams. As he is eligible to represent either country, whichever team selects him first will secure his allegiance.
Seems simple enough right? All the Socceroos have to do is give Volpato a cap and they will effectively lock in a future star. It’s not that easy. Volpato has expressed a desire to represent Italy at a senior level and when Australia’s under-23 team selected Volpato, Roma demanded he be withdrawn from the squad. Ultimately, Volpato will get the final say on which nation he represents, but it’s not looking good for Australia.
Volpato’s former coach Tony Basha believes it’s unlikely the 18-year-old will choose to represent Australia. Basha told Kick 360 “I think his heart is set on representing Italy. He’s playing in the youth team and doing really well. There’s rumours that the Italian national team is going to call him up to the first team.”
This is unfamiliar territory for the Socceroos, who have made a habit of poaching talented players born overseas. Eight of the 20 Socceroos players selected for a pair of friendly matches in September were born outside of Australia. This time, Australia is on the other end of the equation.
Socceroos fans’ hopes for Volpato to represent Australia dwindled in March after the Socceroos 2-0 loss against Japan. Forcing the Socceroos into the play-offs to secure their spot in Qatar, which left qualification looking unlikely at the time. While most fans were devastated by the loss, Volpato took to Snapchat to share a photo showing the result of the match alongside a laughing emoji. The photo went viral on social media and drew the ire of Socceroos fans.
Tony Basha addressed Volpato’s relationship with Australian fans after he received backlash from the Snapchat incident, “He’s not upset with Australia. He’s a proud Aussie kid but the people working around him want him to stick to playing football for Roma. At this stage, I don’t think there’s a chance he’ll play for the Socceroos.”
Despite a turbulent history with football in Australia, Volpato’s play warrants attention. Socceroos head coach Graham Arnold will be tempted to call up Volpato for the world cup this month. Seeing as Italy failed to qualify for the tournament, if the youngster wants to play on the world’s biggest stage, he could so with Australia much sooner than with Italy.
If Volpato wants to play for Australia, that won’t guarantee him a place in the world cup squad. After Volpato scored his first Serie A goal in February, Graham Arnold said he wouldn’t give the phenom a cap just to prevent him from playing for Italy, or before he had earned his spot in the team. “I’m not into just capping people and tying them down for life. It’s Cristian’s decision and his family’s decision,” Arnold told News Corp. “The most important thing is Cristian makes that right decision on what feels right for him.”
The Socceroos will announce their 26-man World Cup squad on November 8th. The world cup is set to kick off in Qatar on November 20th.