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Mario Balotelli and the racism that ruins football

The striker may be a maverick, but the abuse he gets is a stain on the sport, and Serie A in particular. 

Mario Balotelli is a footballer who divides opinion. Any praise for his rocket-powered right peg or nimble footwork under pressure is often met with counterclaims about the Brescia striker’s brash tackling, at times costly showboating and eccentric behaviour off the pitch. But while the conversation around whether Balotelli the player is worth the hassle for a team is wholly legitimate, the basic civility that should be shown towards Balotelli the person is not a matter for debate.

Italian football, evidently, has not grasped this concept. During Brescia’s Serie A match at Hellas Verona earlier this month, Balotelli, who was born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents before being fostered by a Jewish Italian family, was the subject of racist chants that compared him to a monkey.

In response, the 29-year-old threatened to walk off the pitch, only to be convinced to stay on by his teammates. The referee, Maurizio Mariani, stopped the game for five minutes and a message was read out over the stadium’s PA system, warning the crowd that the fixture would be abandoned if the chants continued. The match finished 2-1 to Verona, with a visibly hurt Balotelli scoring Brescia’s goal – a screamer from long range.  

As punishment for the chanting, Serie A’s disciplinary commission ordered the part-closure of one of the stands in Verona’s ground for the following fixture. Within the context of football’s finances, built principally on lucrative broadcasting deals and advertising, this is barely a slap on the wrist.

To make matters worse, shortly after the incident, Luca Castellini, the head of Verona’s “ultra” fan group, Brigate Gialloblù, claimed that there wasn’t any racist undertone to the chanting. He insisted that it was designed simply to “make fun” of Balotelli, before suggesting that the forward, who holds Italian citizenship and has 36 caps for Italy’s national team, can “never be fully Italian” anyway, because he is black.

And to make matters even worse, a statement published last week by Bescia’s own ultra group, 1911, said that Balotelli had brought on the chanting himself because of his flamboyant playing style. “We have no doubts Balotelli is to all intents Italian – even a Bresciano,” it started promisingly, before offering a horrifically poor take on the situation. “The arrogance that he continually gives off is unjustifiable.”

Sadly, Balotelli’s experience of racism and Italian football’s gauche handling of it is not an isolated incident. Between 2011 and 2016, the Observatory on Racism in Football recorded 249 racist incidents in Italian stadiums. Last season alone, it recorded 60.

Balotelli himself has been targeted by racists on many occasions throughout his career. In 2018, during Italy’s 2-1 friendly win over Saudi Arabia in which he scored, some Azzurri fans unfurled a banner in protest at Balotelli’s inclusion in the team. “Il mio capitano è di sangue Italiano,” it read, which translates into English as “My captain has Italian blood.”

Despite this, the incident at Verona, and the multiple times he faced similar chants while playing for his previous clubs, Inter and AC Milan, staggeringly Balotelli has continued to insist that his own sense of Italian identity has not been diminished.

But it should not be on Balotelli, who has also played for Manchester City, Liverpool, Nice and Marseille, to rise above hate. That hate should not be allowed to exist, and where transgressions do occur, they should be punished with the severity they deserve. If Serie A, or indeed any football organisation, is committed to a zero-tolerance stance on racism, and not just paying lip service, then it must act accordingly.

Immediate forfeits, points deductions, huge fines, transfer embargos and, in the most serious cases, relegation or expulsion from a tournament, should not be perceived as too harsh. If Verona had been docked ten points or not been allowed to sign any players in the summer, would their fans be as willing to boo and harass black players in the future?

One of the main reasons why racism in football persists is that there is little deterrent. In October, when England beat Bulgaria 6-0 in a Euro 2020 qualifier in Sofia, their black players were targeted with monkey chants and Nazi salutes from a section of the home fans. UEFA, European football’s governing body, punished Bulgaria by ordering they play one fixture behind closed doors and fining their football association a measly €75,000 (£65,000).

But back to Balotelli, whose bravado in press conferences, expensive clothes or audacious haircuts do not excuse the cruelty he has endured. The striker’s treatment, it could be argued, reflects the grim reality of some wider negative cultural trends. Not just in Italy, but across Europe, the rise of ultra-nationalist and populist agendas that peddle anti-immigration narratives are catalysing bigotry.

Football, as much a social institution as a popular pastime in most countries on the continent, is a useful snapshot of public life. If politicians, such as Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right party Lega Nord, are putting forward racist messages and ideas, is it any wonder that a portion of these have transitioned to the terraces?

If football is to be used, as is desirable, as a force for good, to unify classes, cultures and creeds, then urgent action and re-education are necessary. The practices of victim-blaming and gaslighting black players must be eliminated. Organisations, such as Serie A or UEFA, would do well to stop giving racists the benefit of the doubt, while committing to punishment structures that actually make a difference.

Mario Balotelli, the maverick striker who wrestled with a training bib and became the face of a firework safety campaign a few days after setting fire to his house by launching fireworks indoors, is not everyone’s cup of tea. But, under no circumstances, was his experience at Verona justifiable. And although racism in football is not a uniquely Italian problem, Italian football will always struggle to shed its racist tag as long as it continues to handle these situations so badly.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman