[CONTENT NOTE: Racism, racist imagery]
I don’t watch much soccer, though I will watch it if I catch it on TV. So, I was not one of those people who anxiously awaited this year’s European Cup, which concluded last night (Spain won).
People I follow on Twitter, though, are huge soccer fans. And it was through them that I first heard about Mario Balotelli, a player for the Italian team.
Here is what Balotelli looks like:
His story is as fascinating as it is complex. Born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, he had health problems as a child and ultimately was fostered with a wealthier Italian couple. Although the fostering was initially meant to be for a year, Mario ended up staying, leaving behind his Ghanaian name of Barwuah and taking on that of his foster parents, the Balotellis. At 18, he took on Italian citizenship. As the Daily Mail reported in 2010, his relationship with his biological parents became strained and distant. A brilliant player, Balotelli has found vertiginous success on the pitch, coupled with regular appearances in the newspaper for various teenage stunts, and has been recruited to play as one of his national team’s key strikers during this tournament.
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.
Here is what Balotelli has faced since becoming a member of Italy’s national team two years ago at the age of 19 (h/t @beritmiriam):
Balotelli is not always known for behaving the best on field. Again, I don’t know very much about him, but I like what Tony Karon had to say about it:
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.
Yesterday, after Italy lost 4-0 to Spain in the final of the Euro Cup, Balotelli charged off the field, pushing aside an Italian official who tried to keep him on the pitch to shake hands with the other team (video at this link). Balotelli did eventually come back out to get his medal and shake hands. He had clearly been crying.
Twitter exploded in “Balotelli is a poor sport” and “Watch out! Angry black man on the loose!” in response to this. And while I do think he should have remained on the pitch, that is an easy thing for me to say. What got lost in all this coverage is that the last time Spain had played Italy, the crowd shouted so much racist vitriol at Balotelli, that the Spanish team was fined 20,000 Euro (and that match *just* happened). While it might have appeared that Balotelli was just a poor sport, it may also have been that he felt that he had a lot to prove on the soccer field yesterday, well beyond just his own personal ability, and that he had failed to do so. He is playing for more than himself as he represents for many and on many levels the direct result of European colonialism in Africa come home: Africans who grow up and live in Europe and identify, rightly so, as Europeans even as other Europeans try to deny them that identity. And then, for Balotelli, this plays out in one of the most important places in all of Europe: the soccer pitch and the international press that covers it.
Once Balotelli returned from the locker room, people on Twitter had no problem calling him a pussy for crying over the match. He would have known this part, too, and so fled to cry in private.
I found this image of Balotelli yesterday (the tweet that accompanied it said that this is what Balotelli, had he won, would have looked like celebrating the victory with his children):
The amount of racism that Balotelli has faced is jaw-dropping. Tony Karon at TIME and Dr. Laurent Dubois have both written amazing pieces about this.
Balotelli’s goals [in semifinal against Germany] (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.
And Dubois (go read this entire post):
During the next game, against Ireland, Balotelli scored his first goal of the competition. What happened next generated perhaps one of the most potent and fascinating moments in the tournament: as he turned to celebrate, he began to say something. But his teammates rapidly put their hands over his mouth, muffling and silencing him. The image was unsettling: a goal celebration that was also a bit of a mugging, as if the job of Balotelli’s teammates was to make sure that he scored but didn’t speak afterwards. Most commentators — like those I heard on Belgian television — commended the action, taking the line that given Balotelli’s penchant for controversial statements and behavior, they were doing the young man a favor. But what, precisely, was Balotelli trying to say? The Independent has suggested that — like Samir Nasri who, after scoring against England, had shouted “Ferme ta gueule!” at the camera, presumably responding to a recent criticism in L’Equipe about his lack of scoring — he was going to tauntthe Italian journalists who had been critical of his performance in previous games. Then again, maybe he was just going to say something about how awesome he is, which he clearly enjoys doing as well. But there’s another possibility, which is that Balotelli had some words for the racist fans from the previous game who had taunted him. His teammates stifled whatever it was that was about to come out of his mouth.
I look forward to seeing what Balotelli does in the future. His future seems bright. His path, though, does seem rough and he will most certainly come up against blatant racism everywhere he goes, including the soccer pitch.
Also: I created a storify yesterday of people’s reaction to Balotelli at end of the game. They are either straight-up racist statements or are language that is racially coded (i.e. “scary black man on the loose!” kind of stuff). TRIGGER WARNING.
Finally, for more, just google “balotelli racism.” Lots of great stuff out there.