Tom Kington, Guardian (London), December 13, 2009
The songs are varied, offensive and, in at least one case, openly racist. “If you jump up and down, Balotelli dies” is a favourite with supporters of arguably the most famous Italian football club, Juventus.
“A negro cannot be Italian” is the chant that explains the vitriol. The target of the abuse is 19-year-old Mario Balotelli, a footballer with Italian champions Inter Milan and a rising star of Italy’s Under-21 national team.
In England, Germany or France, Balotelli would be making headlines in the sports pages as one of the most exciting young prospects in the national sport. In Italy, his treatment at the hands of a minority of hostile football fans is turning him into a symbol of the country’s seeming inability to embrace a multi-ethnic identity. Last Monday, Juventus were fined for anti-Balotelli chanting at a match for the second time this season.
Balotelli was born–and immediately abandoned by his Ghanaian parents–in the Sicilian capital, Palermo. He is an Italian passport holder and was brought up by adopted parents in Brescia from the age of two. He speaks with the accent of his region, but has received far more racist abuse than other black stars in Italian football because his Italian identity is seen by some as a provocation.
“The difference [from other black players] is Balotelli is totally black and totally Italian, and that has provoked a short circuit among fans,” said Sandro Modeo, a correspondent for Corriere della Sera.
As Italy’s immigrant total reaches 7%, the treatment of many of the “Balotelli generation”–the half-million children of immigrants born in Italy who qualify by law for Italian citizenship on their 18th birthday–is becoming an increasingly controversial issue in a country which still, overwhelmingly, considers itself white.
Yesterday, a black Italian writer, Pap Khouma, wrote an open letter to La Repubblica, headlined “Being a black Italian: my life as an obstacle course”. In it, he described incidents of routine discrimination: regular requests to provide his permit to stay in Italy; being mistaken for a street-seller by his Milanese neighbours. On one occasion, running through Milan’s streets late for work, Khouma was stopped by a policeman, asked for his papers and escorted to the local station as a non-EU “foreigner”. “Have you any idea,” Khouma asked the paper’s readers, “what it means to be Italian and black in Italy in 2009?”
For Gian Antonio Stella, a columnist for Corriere della Sera, the racism is evident and ignoring it a national pastime. “Britain has reflected on its colonial past, Germany has done the same with Nazism, but Italians still believe the myth of the Good Italian, soft colonialism and insist the racial laws of the 1930s were passed by fascists, not Italians,” he said.
Despite the difficulties, the Balotelli generation is beginning to make its presence felt. The Italian under-14 cricket team is largely made up of Asian-Italians and won a European tournament this summer. Lihao Zhang, an 11-year-old girl of Chinese extraction, living in Voghera, the Lombardy heartland of the xenophobic Northern League party, received glowing press reviews after winning a school competition this year for poetry written in local dialect.
“The offspring of immigrants are easing into Italian culture, meaning Italian traditions are not going to be lost,” said Alessandro Campi, a professor of political science at the University of Perugia. “If anything, these children will have more problems with their own families’ cultures than with their friends’.”
As for Balotelli, a one-match ban for Juventus fans from their home stadium, follow-up fines of over €20,000 (£18,000) for the club and questions in parliament have failed to stop the chants, which are not limited to Turin, where the club is based. The coach of Ghana’s national team, Milovan Rajevac, has publicly invited him to play for the country in next summer’s World Cup. And the beginnings of a backlash against the abuse may be beginning. Some commentators are now calling for the 6ft 2in striker to be selected immediately for the Italian team.
“I am sorry for Balotelli, he should be left alone to play football, but right now he is symbol of a cultural shift in Italy and a yardstick for whether we can make that change,” said Stella, the Corriere della Sera columnist.
Growing up in rich, industrial Brescia, the player became used to racial abuse during school matches, with parents pointing to his height and claiming “with these Africans you can never tell what age they really are”.
“Mario always needed love and affection,” his adoptive sister Cristina told the French newspaper L’Equipe. “He wouldn’t go to sleep without his mother holding his hand.”
On the pitch as a professional, he has sometimes been unable to ignore the hostility from the stands. Faced with Roma fans who reportedly threw bananas at him in a bar, he stuck his tongue out at an opposition defender after scoring against them. For that, claimed the Roma captain Francesco Totti, he “deserved a slap”.
“It’s a shame that everyone is more upset with me than with the people yelling at me,” replied Balotelli.
If Balotelli is indeed picked by Italian national coach Marcello Lippi to play in the World Cup next summer, the selection may signal a new era for black Italians. And as more and more of their white compatriots realise that the country’s ethnic make-up is changing, support is at least beginning to emerge across the political spectrum.
“Balotelli is stubborn, combative and can be a bit of a bully, but at the same time he is generous, brave and irreverent,” said Fare Futuro, a think-tank run by the prominent centre right politician Gianfranco Fini. “He is pure talent. Genius and lack of restraint all in one. What else could be more Italian than that?”