Balotelli fever: Italy celebrates black football hero at last
Mario Balotelli's goal against England silences racists at a critical time for Italy, with immigration soaring
Italy has a new sporting hero. That he should be a footballer is no surprise. That he should be black - sadly – is.
For years Mario Balotelli has endured the racist refrain that there is "no such thing as a black Italian". But yesterday morning, after he headed the decisive goal in Italy's 2-1 victory over England in Brazil, the media here finally claimed their first Italian-born and bred black football hero.
And for once, the silence of the racists who have dogged him was deafening.
'Balotelli Schools the English' read one headline. 'Balotelli: King of the Jungle' was another. Through the day, 'Balo Fever' spread like wildfire across the peninsula as Azzurri fans celebrated the dream start for the Italian national team.
"I'm really happy, incredibly high emotions," Balotelli told RAI. "The first game for me at the World Cup, what a wonderful feeling. I dedicated this one to my future wife and my family."
Future wife and family? At 23, is football's “wild child” channeling the passion that constantly landed him in the gossip sheets into a new, positive reinvention of himself?
Until now, he has been called “mercurial”, “unpredictable” and worse. But tweets before and after the match were classy, positive, reserved. He didn’t celebrate on the pitch after his game-winning goal, instead just blowing a kiss to his beautiful Belgian fiancee Fanny Neguesha, to whom he had proposed just days before Italy's opening match.
Balotelli’s rags-to-riches story is no secret in Italy. He was born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents in 1990. When he was just two, they gave him up for adoption to a northern Italian family in Brescia, where he went to school and began playing football.
Despite being born and raised in Italy, the country’s strict immigration laws prevented him from applying for citizenship until he turned 18. Yet today he is as Italian as any of the fans in the stands who sometimes harass him.
His heroic status is bestowed at a time when debate over immigration and who should be allowed to be Italian and who should not has never been so heated.
In Milan, where Balotelli played for Inter before joining Manchester City for two volatile seasons and returning to AC Milan, the railway station this weekend overflowed with Syrian immigrants who had arrived illegally, either by sea from north Africa or by land via Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia.
Ten thousand Syrians have passed through Milan's central station this year, 1,000 just in the last several days, mostly headed for Sweden, Germany and France.
In Palermo, the city of Balotelli's birth, the Italian Navy supply ship Etna pulled into port yesterday carrying 700 migrants who had been saved from the Strait of Sicily, as well as the coffins of ten who did not survive when their boat overturned. Forty are still missing, but the tragedy registered barely a blip on Europe’s media radar.
More than 53,000 migrants have arrived in Italy from north Africa this year, surpassing last year’s 40,000. Very soon the tally is expected to surpass the 63,000 of 2011 when the political instability caused by the Arab Spring changed forever how the borders were managed.
Once again this weekend, Italy’s Interior Ministry has made a desperate plea for more help from the European Union, which is all too eager to tell Italy’s fishermen how to regulate their catch in the Med, but unwilling to come up with a policy for the surge of migrants caught at sea.
The lack of EU policy is frustrating towns and cities across Sicily and Italy which are struggling with limited resources to meet the humanitarian demands of the exodus. That frustration is a terrible festering ground for the kind of racism that has haunted Balotelli.
Which is why the spread of 'Balo fever' could not have come at a more crucial moment for Italy.
One of the first public figures to welcome Italy's victory early on Sunday morning - and Balotelli's part in it - was Cecile Kyenge, the Congolese ophthalmologist who was Italy’s first black minister and on 25 May won broad support as a EU parliamentarian.
As a minister, Kyenge was constantly taunted with racist remarks: she was once compared to an orang-utan by a Northern League politician and had bananas thrown at her while on stage at a political event. She called Sunday’s win a “beautiful victory by a beautiful Italy: team spirit, tenacity, courage and inspiration of a new Italian”.
The "new Italian" being Balotelli.
If he can keep up the good work on the field in Brazil, and further encourage Italy to embrace, even celebrate its diversity, he could achieve a lot more than those who once wrote him off as 'bonkers Balotelli' ever envisaged.