By Daniel Hunt
MAY 2010: On the eve of Italy defending the World Cup, a 19-year-old Mario Balotelli appeared on the cover of their edition of Vanity Fair, draped in the Tricolore, alongside the headline “Balotelli D’Italia”. He wasn’t included in the Italian world cup squad of course, and Vanity Fair knew this. The decision to run the cover was actually quite a bold anti-racist statement on the part of Milan’s usually apolitical fashion press.
With his at times maddening, but ultimately title-winning contribution at City, he’s certainly been no stranger to our own media. He has been under high-resolution scrutiny. However, having lived in Milan during his emergence and up to his exit from Inter, I saw something that perhaps wasn’t completely apparent outside the country.
Italy that summer went on to produce what was regarded at home and abroad as their worst tournament performance in memory – it was dour, slow, ineffective, uninspired. The reinstated winner, Marcelo Lippi, had brought with him the same group of trusted lieutenants – Juventinos, senior players who had already looked at the end of their effectiveness in the 2006 tournament.
Balotelli, along with some other younger players of note, were either not present or benched. The tired squad’s dismal failure seemed cruelly analogical to the developing societal problems that faced the country. With an ageing population, and despite enclaves of immigration, still largely monocultural, Mario in an Azzurri shirt, unknowingly, perhaps represented an unfamiliar Italy to come.
The French far right famously dismissed their own 1998 World Cup victory as being not for France, but “for the melting pot” - ironically losing electoral popularity in the process. But unlike France, or England for that matter, Italy’s own colonialism, from Libya to Abyssinia, left barely any visible legacy on its athletes; even Germany who did not have that level of African involvement, had players of sub-Saharan origin make their football team a decade earlier.
This is not to endorse the stereotype of Italy as a xenophobic nation. On the contrary, the major cities are extremely cosmopolitan and it actually has an open and embracing policy on immigration, at least towards its own diaspora in the Americas. It is possible, with an Italian grandparent and some classic bureaucracy, to gain Italian Citizenship with comparative ease. Shaping this policy was the perspective that with an ageing population, and acknowledged (whispered) need for immigration, they should encourage oriundi (immigrants of Italian origin) to return from the new world to make up the numbers. Thus for example in recent years you have former Juve player Mauro Camoranesi, an Argentine of mixed ethnicity, and Thiago Motta, a Brazilian, who both faced little resistance establishing themselves in the national team, and many others preceded them.
Conversely Mario, despite being Italian born and raised, upon his emergence into Roberto Mancini’s Inter, was greeted with open racism and resistance. This was particularly evident at Juve, where infamous chants of “Non esistono Negri Italiani” rang around sections of Stadio delle Alpi. There were even calls for him to declare for his biological parents’ country of origin, Ghana, which would not only have appeased the racists, but also eased the consciences of some sympathisers, who against their better judgement would still have preferred the issue to disappear from discussion for another generation.
In the pursuit for Inter’s 09/10 treble, Mario had a trying season under Jose Mourinho, who considered him “unmanageable” and it seemed inevitable that he would need to leave the country in order to develop. I witnessed Balotelli’s behaviour at its most erratic first hand: the Champions League semi against Barcelona at the San Siro. Arriving as a substitute in the second half, the fans were split: he was not without encouragement, while others – enraged at a flippant TV prank where he pulled on an AC Milan jersey – abused both Mario and his family from the moment he approached the touchline. Then I witnessed something I have never seen before: he received the ball on the halfway line and hoofed directly and deliberately at the baying mob in the Curva Nord. Minutes later, he picked up the ball again in the same area, and repeated this startling and needless act, with his manager rendered apoplectic. He left the field with the match won, nerazzurri shirt discarded, only to be physically confronted by an indignant Marco Materazzi in the tunnel.
Nobody, let alone he, was given the opportunity to reason that his behaviour may be simply a nineteen year old kid’s irrational response to an unimaginable level of abuse, atop clear and evident institutional racism. His behaviour was used to fuel the whisperings from detractors that “this is why he could never play for Italy”. His attitude, his petulance, unreliability, indiscipline, temper, were presented as immovable barriers against selection, and his own progression towards genuine world class. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and some even went as far as to suggest he had no future in the game at all. Yet he has since put his extraordinary talent (if not his extraordinary temperament) beyond question.
Under Cesare Prandelli, he eventually arrived into the Italian first team with a stunning long-range goal versus Poland. However it was his spectacular second during an unplayable fifteen minutes against Republic of Ireland, that sealed the Azzurri’s place in the quarter finals at Euro 2012, where at 21, he has an opportunity to mature, lay demons to rest, and set an example that could alter perceptions of Italian football, and perhaps Italy itself.
Follow Daniel on Twitter: @Daniel_IV_