Willie Gannon argues the point that Mario Balotelli is the most important Italian player of all-time, not least the most important figure in Italy of his generation.
Italian football is at a crossroads. Every direction is fraught with danger. However, one man can bring the glory days back and steer Italian society towards a new era. That man is probably the most important Italian footballer of all time; Mario Balotelli.
Gone are the heady days of the ’90s where every world star had the ambition of making it in Serie A. Money has dropped out of the game and in its place a new enemy has risen; racism.
Italy has one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in Europe. During the last census it was estimated four to five million people living in the country, around seven percent of the population, was of foreign decent. This rapid rise in “foreigners” coming to Italian shores, especially in an era of economic hardship, has meant a fundamental change in Italian society and how the country should handle this intake is questioned daily. The influx has also seen a rise in far right political groups as well as the racist underground.
New laws in the country have not helped matters and according to Saskia Sassen, a leading European Immigration expert, the new laws, passed in July 2009, will be the beginning of a catastrophic phase in Italian life for immigrants and Italian citizens alike. The new laws have a number of worrying aspects with groups such as the EU and the Vatican condemning their introduction. Under the legislation, illegal immigrants are liable to pay a fine of €10,000 and can now be detained by the authorities for up to six months.
In addition, people who knowingly house undocumented migrants can now face up to three years in prison. The new law also permits the formation of unarmed citizen patrol groups to help police keep order. This particular section of the ruling is very worrying as it practically condones the use of self-styled police groups who could have racist motives.
Football has always had its place in Italian politics. Stadiums throughout the country have been used to make political statements. In the current climate football stadiums have unfortunately become the home to many far right groups chanting and holding banners condemning immigrants and coloured people in particular. Such is football’s use as a political tool with Italian society you are more likely to have a right wing group use a football match to express their views rather than a group of fans who are racist.
Mario Balotelli, as the most well known coloured Italian footballer, has had to deal with more than his fair share of racist abuse from “fans” during his young career. Most recently the 20-year-old was subjected to abuse from home and away fans when he represented his country against Romania in a friendly in Austria.
His every touch was booed and jeered by both sets of fans with the most vociferous chanting coming from a 100 strong group of far-right Italians who unfurled banners stating; “No to a multi-ethnic Italy” and “there are no black Italians.” Gazzetta Della Sport’s glib reply was “it was a good thing there are black Italians because Balotelli was the best thing about this lacklustre display.”
After the game, and despite the many questions against his character, Balotelli was quite excellent in his dealing with the issue on hand.
“There is no point stopping the game because a few fans behave like that. We do need to change these people but you’re not going to do it through a football match.
“It’s pointless to put up banners saying ‘no to a multi ethnic Italy’ because where I’m from in Brescia is already a multi ethnic area.
“I’d like to see the newspapers talk more about the racism problem than about the amount of girlfriends I’ve had.”
Balotelli is no stranger to racist abuse. The son to immigrant Ghanaian parents has endured insults throughout his time in Italy. From Roma fans throwing bananas at him as he prepared to represent the Italian U21s to Juve fans chanting “black Italians do not exist” at the youth during the Derby d’Italia to Chievo fans jeering and howling his every touch, Balotelli has been forced to endure more than most men twice his age could handle.
There is no doubting Balotelli’s potential as a footballer. He is a supreme athlete, technically gifted, fast and strong with a great footballing brain but also petulant and childish to a huge degree. It is this aspect of his character that seems to annoy so many people in the game, but many Italians in particular. Some see this flaw in his character as justification for the abuses he has to endure but that is very far from the truth.
In one of life’s cruel tricks, Mario Balotelli was born with severe intestinal problems. His mother and father, Thomas and Rose Barwuah, worked around the clock to care for their child, even baptising him early in case he died from complications. Two years after Mario’s birth, the Barwuah family moved to Brescia as Thomas went in search of work. Only able to afford a cramped home for a family of five, Thomas approached Italian Social Services for aid.
The basic answer they came back with was that Mario was too sick to stay with them and they should give him away to foster parents.
This was a huge choice for Thomas and Rose and hoping for a healthier life for their son they allowed their two and half year old Mario to leave to go and live with a new family. It was obviously a strain on both parties and one could only imagine the abandonment that a child that young would feel. His adopted sister, Cristina, tells of how Mario would only sleep at night if his new mother stayed with him and held his hand.
The incident has helped shape “Super Mario” into becoming the man he is today, and today he is the face of everything that scares the far right in Italy. At the age of 18, Mario Barwuah received Italian citizenship and in a show of love to his adopted parents he changed his name to Balotelli.
He is the first of the “Balotelli Generation”, the generation of immigrant children who came to Italy 18 years ago and can now claim Italian citizenship. Mario Balotelli represents over half a million foreign immigrants who can now hold Italian passports after living in the country for 18 years.
Now certain parts of Italian society have to deal with immigrants who are now protected by the very same laws that they are and that the very fabric of Italian society is being changed rather than undermined. Balotelli, as seen by many as the figurehead for this new generation, represents a concerted shift in Italian life and this scares many people.
“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.
Italian football has found itself in the very same place that English football was in the 1970s.
During the previous 20 years there was mass immigration to Britain for the Caribbean, India, and Pakistan amongst many others. Indeed it was even common at one stage to see signs in bars, shops, and half way houses with the tag line of “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish.”
From the disaffected youth of Britain in the ’70s and ’80s, racism and right wing concerns began to gain a foothold until most right thinking people pushed these radical views to the margins where they belong. However, during times with high-unemployment and economic problems it is not unusual to see these populist views creep back and gain a foothold as society looks to blame rather than answers.
The Britain we know of today in 2010 has had up to 50 years to deal with and grow towards a greater understanding of immigrants and the great many fears that many once thought were there have been seen for the lies they are.
One of the most positive aspects of England’s doomed 2018 World Cup bid was of how the England of today is multi-cultural country with pockets from different nationalities covering the length and breadth of its shores. It still has some problems, but nothing like the ones it faced years ago. In this regard, Italian society is now going through what Britain struggled through in decades previous.
In time and with hope, Mario Balotelli will grow into the great footballer we all know he could become and become a real leader against the casual racism that is seeping into society. If he can become one of his country’s best players then the acceptance of immigrants will become all the easier. It is hard enough to become a top professional footballer but to become a symbol as well? For some the task would be too much, but Mario Balotelli is more than capable.
“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, a Corriere Della Sera columnist.
“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?”