6514_isi_rossi_isicb061509105 Chris Brunskill/isiphotos.com
The One That Got Away

Some U.S. Fans Now Feel Sorry For Giuseppe Rossi

The Teaneck, N.J. native made a lot of enemies in his homeland when he chose to play his international soccer for Italy instead of the U.S. But that venom is now evolving into something approaching sympathy.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
June 05, 2014
1:07 PM
THE VITRIOL REACHED its peak in June of 2009.

That summer the United States national team was participating in the Confederations Cup in South Africa, and their first round opponents included Italy. A certain New Jersey born-and-raised forward who had shunned his native country to play for the far more-heralded Azzurri of his parents’ homeland scored a brace for Italy in a 3-1 defeat of the United States.

That’s when the myriad threads on message boards like BigSoccer.com dedicated to Giuseppe Rossi and his choice of national team participation brimmed with outrage. A Facebook page titled “We Hate Giuseppe Rossi” arose, featuring language that would make George Carlin blush.

Comparisons to Benedict Arnold ran rampant, and words that rhymed with truck, bunt, fussy and witch flowed like, well, like Barbera d'Alba at an Italian family’s Sunday dinner.

But that kind of anger is tough to maintain for most people. Five years removed from that game in South Africa, many hardcore U.S. fans appear to have mellowed on Rossi and even feel some empathy toward him as it was announced this week that he wouldn’t be part of Italy’s World Cup squad this summer—the second straight time he was a late drop from its World Cup roster.

“I used to hate that guy,” said Ethan Case, an engineer from Hoboken, N.J., who had made his feelings known on the aforementioned Facebook page. “I grew up the next town over from him in New Jersey and played travel and rec soccer and we probably played against each other. I couldn’t believe a guy from my area would play for another country, especially when we, our national team, needed him so badly. That’s what got me so upset. He could have done wonders for our team. He could have been a superstar here.”

Case spoke to American Soccer Now hours before boarding a flight to Jacksonville, Fla., to watch the U.S. play Nigeria in its final World Cup tune-up and admitted that he is not as angered about Rossi’s national team choice as he once was.

  • POLL: Happy that Rossi was left off Italy's World Cup squad?

    “I understand he’s first-generation American and that was a hard choice. As I get older and we’re more removed from (Rossi’s decision) and get some perspective, I get why he did it. But I bet he regrets his decision after getting cut a second time by the Italians right before a World Cup.”

    Even some of the most zealous of American fans understand Rossi’s decision. Mike Lastort of Tacoma Park, Maryland, has been a hardcore D.C. United supporter since the club’s late 90s heyday and, he says, has been to over 50 U.S. national team games. He once joined a band of like-minded soccer pranksters in something dubbed Project Mayhem where the U.S. supporters went to the visiting Guatemala national team’s hotel to make as much noise as possible in an attempt to disrupt the team’s stay and have it carry over onto the field.

    But for all his zeal, he holds no ill will towards Rossi. “Are you kidding? It’s the Italian. National. Team,” he said, pausing for effect. “Ninety-nine percent of us, if he we had a choice to play for a team that good—at the time he made his decision they were World Cup champions—we’d do it. Anyone who says they wouldn’t is probably lying.”

    That doesn’t mean Lastort never found himself playing the What-If Game, imagining what Rossi could have done in a U.S. uniform. “Oh, sure. Playing with Landon (Donovan) the way he was playing four years ago, playing with Dempsey, that would have been deadly.”

    And that’s what fills Rossi’s tale with as much irony as any opera Puccini composed. He chased his heart and was twice rejected while the one he rejected could have so dearly used him and would have loved him for it.

    “It’s not a stretch to say he’d have been the best U.S. national team player ever,” said former U.S. Olympic captain turned broadcaster Brian Dunseth. “For someone of his (small) size he is so strong and he has such a great left foot and is so smart and just a great goal-scorer. There’s no question he (would have made) the U.S. much better and probably be going to his third World Cup already.”

    Even former U.S. national team players who chose the U.S. over other countries find little fault with Rossi’s choice. John Thorrington was born in South Africa to an English father and raised in the United States. He was signed by Manchester United as a teenager and upon doing so was promptly courted by both countries while was awaiting his U.S. citizenship.

    “It was for the youth national teams, not the same level (as Rossi), but both England and South Africa showed interest,” said Thorrington, now working for the MLS Players Union. “But my heart was with the U.S. just like (Rossi’s) heart was with Italy. You gotta go where your heart takes you.”

    Rossi’s situation is exacerbated by injury. Before both the 2010 and this year’s World Cups he suffered injuries that limited his playing time, and arguably, his fitness in the months before the World Cup sides were picked. When both his injuries and the World Cup omissions happened, the on-line schadenfreude among U.S. fans was high, though not all agreed with it.

    “I actually felt bad for the guy when he kept getting hurt,” said Nick Cavelli of Milwaukee, who will be going to his third straight World Cup later this month. “I mean, yeah, when he scored against the U.S. I was definitely bitter. But I think there are also some upsides to having an American play for Italy in a World Cup. It’s not great for the U.S. national team but it’s still a good statement about American soccer. It would have been pretty cool to have an American on their World Cup team.”

    Part of the softening towards Rossi may be because he never played coy, either publically or in private, about his national team intentions.

    “He was always very straightforward when (the USSF) reached out to him,” said a source close to the situation at the time. “Both Bruce (Arena) and Bob (Bradley) approached him or his agent when they were national team coach and he was very polite and appreciative but never wavered about wanting to play for Italy. He even sent Bob a congratulations note when we advanced” to the second round at the World Cup four years ago.

    While time and perspective have healed many of the wounds Rossi has caused for U.S. fans, not all are ready to forget.

    Felix Kambouropoulos , a restaurant owner from Lighthouse Point, Fla., who went to all the U.S. games the past two World Cups, admits he was pleased to see Rossi dropped from the Italian side twice. “I am happy for that to tell you the truth, he deserves it.” Despite close ties to his parents’ Greek heritage, he doesn’t empathize with Rossi’s pull to Italy.

    “I do not understand Rossi. I would tell anyone that grows up here to play for the USA. This is your home. It reminds me of when we were in Kaiserslautern (Germany, for the U.S.-Italy game in the 2006 World Cup) and there were all these Italian-Americans, some of them were American soldiers, rooting for Italy. That really pissed me off and I see Rossi as just like those guys.”

    How did you feel about Rossi in 2009? How do you feel about him now? Chime in below and be sure to vote in our poll.

    Brooke Tunstall is a veteran journalist who has covered Major League Soccer since its initial player dispersal draft. You can follow him on Twitter.
  • Post a comment