“There are no black Italians!” went the chant by some far-right supporters of Italy’s national football team a couple of years ago when young Mario Balotelli made his debut for the national side. Well, the bad news for the racists that still make their voices heard in some of Italy’s stadiums, is that if there are no black Italians, their Euro 2012 semifinal against Germany would have been a 0-1 defeat.
Of course, here on Planet 21st Century, Italians were driven into joyous rapture on Thursday by two exquisite Balotelli goals against Germany that booked Italy’s place in Sunday’s Euro 2012 final against Spain. The first was a superbly taken near-post header after his strike partner Antonio Cassano had brilliantly turned a defender to provide the cross; the second came minutes later after Riccardo Montolivo lobbed over the back four and he raced away to lash home a shot of such venom that German keeper Manuel Neuer scarcely moved before it bulged his net.
Balotelli’s goals (together with an earlier one against Ireland that remains a contender for goal of the tournament) not only confirmed him as the most dangerous striker at Euro 2012; they were direct hits on the scourge of racism that continues to dog the game. As hundreds of thousands of Italians danced with joy on the streets at his achievement, Balotelli took off his shirt — an offense that requires a yellow card under the rules of the game — and clenched his muscles like a body builder. Here is my black Italian skin, he seemed to be saying, to the people of the country that adopted him but which hasn’t necessarily accepted him, and remains plagued with a prejudice that denies his dignity. There he stood, an Italian hero black and proud, inviting his teammates, and all of Italy, to embrace him — and along with him, a different concept of the boundaries of Italian identity. The impact on millions of Italians will have been electric. And who can doubt that the tens of thousands of African migrants who live on the margins of some of Italy’s larger cities will have walked a lot taller on Thursday night.
In a brilliant analysis of Euro 2012’s impact on European racism and on the reimagining of the nation itself, Duke University scholar Laurent Dubois writes:
“During international football competitions … eleven players briefly become their country, for a time, on the pitch. A nation is a difficult thing to grasp: unpalpable, mythic, flighty. Historians might labor away to define the precise contours of a country’s culture and institutions, and even sometimes attempt to delineate it’s soul, while political leaders try mightily (and persistently fail) to stand as representatives of it’s ideals. But in a way there is nothing quite so tactile, so real, as the way a team represents a nation: during their time on the pitch, they have in their hands a small sliver of the country’s destiny. And in those miraculous and memorable moments when individual trajectories intersect with a national sporting victory, sometimes biographies and histories seem briefly to meld. At such moments, the players who inhabit the crossroads of sporting and national history –Maradona in 1986, Zidane in 1998 — become icons, even saints.”
Saint Mario, then?
Well, let’s just say that Italy may take a while to get there. Balotelli’s goals were a challenge not only to the racism of opposing fans who have been known to throw bananas onto the field to taunt him, but also that of many Italian fans. Indeed, just this week the leading Italian sports daily ran a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong, which DuBois noted was using a “racial vocabulary not that far from that of the Croatian fans” fined by the tournament organizers for throwing bananas onto the pitch to humiliate Balotelli.
Balotelli’s goals negate and ridicule racism, diminishing its power but not necessarily eradicating it. Balotelli has had to fight for his dignity and humanity every step of his career, and that fight will continue.
His personal identity, also, is contested, and a source of great anger and conflict. His is the fight of a young boy who felt abandoned by his Ghanaian parents and raised by caring strangers in a hostile society. Thursday’s game was bookended by two touching moments that framed Balotelli’s identity: The cameras caught him warmly sharing a joke in the tunnel before the game with German defender Jerome Boateng; perhaps Balotelli had suggested that they could have been teammates if they had both followed Boateng’s brother, Kevin-Prince, in electing to play for Ghana, for whom both would have been eligible. And then, amid the triumphant celebrations of his teammates after the final whistle, Balotelli ran off into the crowd and embraced an elderly white woman — Silvia Balotelli, the mother who had adopted him at age 3, and who had held the hand of the fearful young Mario every night until he was asleep. “These goals are for you,” he told her. She appeared to be crying.
Balotelli, when he’s on his game as he was on Thursday, works hard for his teammates, and drives the team to victory. He raced over to Cassano to celebrate his strike partner’s work in creating the chance that Balotelli converted for his first. But out on the field, Balotelli never looks like just another one of the lads. He’s also on a quest of his own, forced to blaze a trail for others that will follow. One day, young black Italian kids will be unproblematically integrated into the national football team, perhaps even into the nation it represents. And when that happens, they’ll look back on Mario Balotelli as their Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks. For this observer, at least, the celebration of Balotelli’s second goal seemed to be a gesture that resonated with the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the podium at the Mexico City Olympics.
There’s arguably even a little of the young Muhammad Ali in a young man so brash and confident in his talents, yet speaking his mind on a world whose rules he believes his stacked against him, and people like him.
The commentators are maddened by Balotelli’s antics, but he’s only 21 years old, and a product of scarring psychological trauma at a very young age. His parents gave him up for adoption at age three, but they lived across town, and tried to reestablish the relationship when he became a famous footballer — an effort he angrily blocked.
The fact that Balotelli wants to make his voice heard — wants to challenge racism, challenge the injustices and hypocrisies he perceives — doesn’t sit well with his teammates. Leonardo Bonucci clamped a hand over Balotelli’s mouth to stop a tirade after the striker had scored a wildly improbable goal against Ireland earlier in the tournament.
His teammates would seem to prefer that Balotelli didn’t make an issue of racism, i.e. that he simply ignore the taunts and the ape-potrayals and get on with the game. But Balotelli didn’t invent racism; racism has targeted Balotelli — not his teammates — and has left him no choice but to respond. Balotelli’s very being as a black Italian in the number 9 shirt of the Azzuri is an exclamation point in a society where it’s quite conceivable that Barack Obama, were he a football player rather than the President of the United States, would be targeted by racist taunts. That may not be a struggle Balotelli’s teammates are willing to wage alongside him, but it’s a struggle Balotelli can’t avoid, nor does he try to.
I started my own Euro 2012 musings a month ago with a post on racism, Balotelli inevitably featuring front and center. In the post, I featured this lovely Nike ad:
As Balotelli gets into the chair, the barber asks what he wants. “To be remembered,” Balotelli answers. After his semifinal performance against Germany, there’s no question of him ever being forgotten.
Spain goes into Sunday’s final the firm favorite, despite the fact that the two sides drew when they faced one another in a group game. The Spanish know that to beat Italy, they must do two things: They must give Andrea Pirlo no time on the ball, denying him time and space to orchestrate as only he can. And they must keep Balotelli quiet. Pressing Pirlo is a straightforward if difficult task, but as his teammates know as much as his adversaries do, constraining Balotelli can be impossible. Oh, and the Spanish defenders’ cause won’t be helped by the fact that on the same day that Balotelli’s brace sank the Germans, UEFA fined Spain $30,000 — for racist abuse directed at Balotelli by Spanish fans during the group game. The mercurial young striker may go into Sunday’s game, once again, with a point to prove.