Mario Balotelli and his race against the racists

July 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Super Mario meme.

If Mario Balotelli had scored in the final of Euro 2012, Italy might still have lost. But he didn’t score and even if he had, I don’t think it would have rewritten history. It was Spain’s night and rightly so. The Spanish are in a class of their own, having won two back to back European championships and a world cup.

But I have taken heart that the young Italian striker has done enough to show his growing class and increasing maturity as a player. Given his chequered and petulant past, Italians must also be encouraged that this wayward son is fast becoming the kind of destroyer of other teams that many of us hope he can be.

Super Mario’s scrapes with officials and managers are well documented and I won’t go into them here but you can find it on his Wikipedia page. Of all the players at Euro 2012, he is the one player I perhaps invested most of my hopes in – and not just because I have loved Italian football since Roberto Baggio and Salvatore Schillaci thrilled us during Italia 90.

The goals – especially the two that broke German hearts – Balotelli scored during this tournament in Poland and Ukraine are three of the best I’ve ever seen and I have my fingers crossed he brings with him the threat and promise of similar goals when the world cup is played in Brazil in 2014.

But football is only part of the argument as to why many of us will him on to succeed and to make the Italian football team great again (although it would take some doing to get close to the success enjoyed by this current Spanish team with its celestial line-up that includes Andreas Iniesta, Ilker Casillas, Cesc Fabregas and Xavi Hernandez).

The rest of the case is about  race. Mario Balotelli has everything that a 21 year old man could possibly wish for – tremendous talent, enormous wealth and global celebrity. He also has a supportive family. The surprise is that it isn’t his birth family we are talking about. Balotelli was born in Italy to a migrant couple from Ghana who had him adopted out. His adoptive mother, Silvia Balotelli, was pictured being embraced by Mario after the game against Germany and he dedicated those goals to her.

But here’s the thing. Balotelli is black. He sticks out of the Italian squad like a Chinese All Black might. Italy is not like Britain or France or Portugal or the Netherlands. There is no big history of empire building (Libya and Ethiopia excluded) that led to the kinds of inward migration flows that created those modern multicultural societies.

Italy has been a predominantly homogenous country for a long time until relatively recently where it is now home to thousands of Eastern European, African, and Asian migrants. As the son of Ghanaian migrants to Italy who was fostered out to a white Jewish Italian family from the age of three, Balotelli is a very visible sign of how Italy’s ethnography is changing.

In terms of the football and race, and within the context of the Italian game, Mario Balotelli has been a divisive figure to many. Before Euro 2012, a minority of Italians made their views felt that a black man should not be playing for the national team. Italy has had many fine and distinguished black footballers play there as professionals with Italian clubs but never has the country chosen a black player who qualified by citizenship. Balotelli’s appearances in the Azzurri shirt is unprecedented.

So during the final, when a commentator said Balotelli had been born in Ghana, I tweeted this.

I don’t think the broadcaster was intentionally denying the player’s Italian-ness but he may have thought he was explaining why a black man could be playing for Italy. But it irritated me that he was wrong. Balotelli was born in Italy and afterwards, by tweeting that retort, I realised that I’d fallen into the same kind of trap that literally colours the lenses of white supremacist thinking and the mechanism that neo Nazis and other racists use to exclude those they feel do not belong to their culture and country – no matter how long they have lived there.

Even if Balotelli had been born in Ghana, he could still be as Italian as spaghetti. He grew up there, has an Italian passport, adoptive Italian parents and speaks Italian as well as you would imagine other members of the Italian national team.

To deny Balotelli’s Italian-ness is to apply the same kind of smear that has been attempted by the extremist Tea Party movement in the United States to marginalise Barack Obama’s birth right to be president.

It is for this reason that Mario Balotelli is, for me, more than a footballer. He is instead someone who defies the stereotype of an Italian that a minority of football fans subscribe to. Have a look at this cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong, as it was published by Italy’s leading sports newspaper, the Gazetta della Sport.

Mario Balotelli as King Kong.

While the cartoonist’s intention is to pay tribute to Balotelli’s performances at the tournament, it is undeniably racist. No white player would ever be depicted in that way and the link between black people and apes is only made by those with a racist world view. Encouragingly, the cartoon kicked up a storm, prompting an ersatz and not very genuine apology from the newspaper.

Mario Balotelli, like many black footballers, has had to suffer the indignities of having bananas thrown at him, monkey chants and the unfurling of racist banners. We saw some of this at Euro 2012, and European football’s governing body, UEFA, has even penalised some of national football associations for the racist behaviour of their fans.

This is why many of us celebrate Super Mario as a modern day hero. Just by being on the football pitch in the national shirt of Italy, he is a poke in the eye for those Europeans who think a black man can never be a European, and one in the occhi for those Italians who think a black man should never play for Italy. For this reason alone, I hope Super Mario keeps on scoring amazing goals.

Post script: If you like memes, check out these Mario memes on Tumblr.

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