The beauty of sports is that they often force folks to confront racial, social and economic issues head-on. An unmatched presence worldwide, Soccer is one sport where the conversations in these areas are ever-present.
Mario Balotelli, by most people’s assumption, would be a fair-skinned Italian. Born Mario Hurwa, he’s actually a black Ghanian whose parents immigrated to Italy and gave him up to an Italian family. At 19 and already a starter every now and then for one of Europe’s premier clubs, Internazionale, he’s the brightest talent Italy has to offer in his age group. Strong, lightning-quick and standing at 6’2,” he’s a physical force to be reckoned with.
Last weekend, with Inter embarrassingly down a goal to Cagliari, manager Jose Mourinho threw in Balotelli at half-time to add a third forward to a formation already including Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito. Though he didn’t score, he was certainly disruptive upfront as Inter reversed the advantage in their favor after the substitution to win 2-1.
However, racist chanting by the Cagliari fans against Balotelli marred the win—it wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with similar treatment. Last year, playing away in Turin against Juventus, opposing supporters jeered at him, “A black Italian does not exist.”
Admittedly, a black man of Italian birth might be extremely rare but regardless, the actions by those in Turin and Cagliari were categorically wrong. Having never been to Italy, I’m not sure how racist it still is there, if it is at all. But in my decade and a half spent playing club soccer on an almost all-black soccer team; choice, brawl-inducing language was usually spewed in our direction when we encountered predominantly Italian teams. And I did see True Romance—though I realize there is a distinction between Sicilians and Italians.
The racism Balotelli encounters is telling in that it may alter his decision as to whether to represent the Italian national team when the time comes to play for them or Ghana. Already an Under-21 international, he notably appeared in the European Championships for the junior squad, scoring a critical goal for Italy against Sweden. Thirteen minutes later, Mario lost his temper and got a red card, showing the characteristic immaturity that has plagued him up to this point.
Hopefully, he can let his talent alone speak for him, as a level head is crucial for the treatment he’s bound to continue getting from fans. If he can indeed do so, then a summer in South Africa playing in the World Cup may await the striker. The Azzuri is in desperate need of goal production from their forward line and Balotelli could very well be the answer.
At that point, the entire hopes of a nation will rest on his shoulders. Those fans cursing the color of his skin could very well be forced to support his cause, therein sweeping aside any racist feeling they may harbor, temporarily. Permanence, however, is preferred.