Italian national soccer team's head coach Roberto Mancini speaks during a press conference ahead of Friday's Nations League soccer match against Poland, at the Coverciano training center near Florence, Italy, Monday, Sept. 32018. (Claudio Giovannini/ANSA via AP)

Mancini pleads with Italian clubs to play more Italians

September 03, 2018 - 11:26 am

MILAN (AP) — Italy coach Roberto Mancini bemoaned the dearth of Italian players in Serie A as he focuses on youth in his attempt to get the Azzurri back to the top of international football.

The national team is at a low point after missing the World Cup for the first time in nearly six decades.

According to statistics cited by Italian national news agency Ansa, only 30 percent of footballers who ply their trade in Serie A are eligible to play for the national team — compared to 60 percent 12 years ago.

"The use of Italian players has never been so low here and so we need to invent something," Mancini said at the Azzurri's Coverciano training complex in Florence on Monday.

"So for that reason I have called up certain players. Because I believe that there are very good Italians, certainly better than so many foreigners who are playing in their place."

Mancini announced his squad on Saturday for Italy's opening Nations League matches against Poland and Portugal.

Five players received their first callus, including 17-year-old Monaco forward Pietro Pellegri.

"Between the under 19, 20 and 21 sides we have talented youngsters but they need to be able to play, as happens abroad," Mancini said. "There needs to be more courage.

"From Coverciano, we're trying to launch a strong message: We're convinced that those who are playing well in the youth teams can also do so at a higher level, and so all we have to do is wait and hope to see our young lads out on the pitch, playing regularly and at a high level."

Nicolo Zaniolo was also named in the squad, despite the 19-year-old Roma midfielder never having made an appearance in Serie A.

"Zaniolo and Pellegri are those we want to see most close up, because we believe they have great skills," Mancini said. "He (Zaniolo) did very well at the Under-19 European Championship and at 19 a good player has to play.

"In the past, several of his peers were already playing for big clubs and that must be the case today. It happens abroad. He was part of the under-19 team which got to the final of the European Championship. So why shouldn't he play in the top flight?"

Unfortunately, Mancini won't get a chance for a close look at Pellegri this week as the teenager returned to Monaco with an unspecified injury.

Other players to be called up for the first time were: Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno and defenders Manuel Lazzari (Spal) and Cristiano Biraghi (Fiorentina).

Italy hosts Poland in Bologna on Friday then visits Portugal three days later. They are Mancini's first competitive matches in charge and the Azzurri's first since the humbling World Cup qualifying exit last November.

Striker Mario Balotelli could feature in his first official match with Italy since the 2014 World Cup.

"Balotelli's fit enough even if he has only played one match (for Nice)," Mancini said. "Has he lost weight? Yes, eight or nine grams."

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