Midfielder Bryan Cristante no longer eligible for Canada

Bryan Cristante, middle, celebrates after scoring a goal for Atalanta. (Paolo Magni/ANSA via AP_

The Bryan Cristante ship will not dock in the port that is Canadian soccer

Cristante, a 22-year-old midfielder who plays for Serie A club Atalanta, made his international debut for Italy on Friday in the Azzurri’s World Cup qualifying game against Macedonia in Turin. The two nations played to a 1-1 draw, with Cristante entering the match as a substitute in the 75th minute.

Why should Canadian soccer fans care about this?

Although born in northern Italy, Cristante holds a Canadian passport through his father, which made him eligible to play for Canada’s national team. A bright prospect who recently scored in an Italian league game against Juventus, Cristante had previously played for Italy at multiple youth levels, before finally receiving a call-up from the senior team this week.

Until he played a game for the Azzurri there remained the possibility, slight as it might have been, that he could’ve still pledged his international allegiance to Canada. But Cristante’s appearance in Friday’s game means he is now permanently cap-tied to Italy, and he is no longer eligible to represent Canada in international competition.

Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura called up Cristante to his roster earlier this week as a replacement for Lorenzo Pellegrini, who was originally named to the team but was forced to pull out due to injury.

Canadian coach Octavio Zambrano had been in contact with Cristante about the possibility of him playing for Canada throughout this year. Even as late as Friday afternoon, a mere two hours before the kickoff of the Italy-Macedonia game, Zambrano told Sportsnet he was pretty hopeful that Cristante could still play for Canada.

“It would have been difficult for any player to say no to an invitation like that. But we’ll see how the cards play out in the end. I’m not particularly worried about it yet. There’s something to be said for him being called up [by Italy] but there is also the reality that he could potentially play one or two games for them and that’s it. That’s a real a possibility. … With us, he understands that he has a much better long-standing tenure than he’d have in the Italian national team, in my opinion,” Zambrano said.

Italy has great midfield depth, and Zambrano felt that the chances of Cristante earning regular playing time for the Azzurri were minimal, and that would tip things in Canada’s favour.

“He needs to weigh his options because it’s a very important decision that he has to made, and I’m comfortable from what I know about him and the people around him that he will make the right decision,” Zambrano said.

“At the end of the day, you have to be smart when you make a decision of this magnitude. Just looking at it the depth of [the Italian] team and who is on it, I very much have hope that he will see what we have to offer him, and that will win out at the end of the day.”

Cristante’s decision to accept the invitation to join the Italian team for Friday’s game seemed to suggest, from the outside, that he had already made up his mind about his international future.

Zambrano refused to concede, though.

“I wouldn’t be speaking to you this way if I got a cold reaction from him, and my visit to Italy where I saw him play and met him for the first time. … If you look at it from the emotional side, you could probably come to that conclusion [that he’ll play for Italy]. I chose to look at it from the more pragmatic view,” Zambrano said.