Super Mario

When I was a kid, Super Mario was a video game that featured a tiny Italian American plumber with a red cap and blue overalls. The times, they are a-changin’. Today Super Mario, last name Balotelli, is one of the biggest stars in the soccer solar system. Still, it was with no small degree of surprise that I found out he was gracing the cover of TIME magazine. 

The article by Catherine Mayer and Stephan Faris is well done and I personally always find it intriguing when mainstream American news media turn their attention to European football. They tend to look at the sport through a geopolitical/societal lens and as much as I love the game itself and some of the players who excel at it, that perspective is endlessly fascinating to me.

The game and everything that surrounds it reveals so much – to my mind – about European society as a whole but also about the nuances from one country to the other. And in that landscape, complicated as it is, Balotelli is still something else, some thing apart.

He’s the first black player to play for the Azzuri (Italy’s national team). He’s young, extremely talented, as just as extremely mercurial. The piece in TIME does a good job of explaining some of the events and experiences that have shaped him but what really interested me was the conversation that it opened up about racism.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll no doubt recall my rant about the punishment handed down to Chelsea captain (and former England captain) John Terry who was found guilty of racially abusing another player.

England, which has done such a remarkable job of sussing out a huge chunk of the nefarious elements that plagued football in the 80s and further back, finds itself dealing with an increasing number of high profile incidents of racism. The latest in date involved referee Mark Clattenburg who is accused of using racist and xenophobic language towards two Chelsea players during the recent Man United v Chelsea match.

And despite that, England is considered to have a much better handle on racism in football than countries like Spain and Italy where monkey chants and other forms of abuse towards black players are not uncommon. Imagine what that’s like for Balotelli. He scored two goals against Germany in the Euro 2012 semi final, which qualified Italy for the final. In case you’re not clear on it, that is A. Big. Effing. Deal.  Think scoring the touchdown that takes your team to the Superbowl. And yet as Mayer and Faris recount, he’s had racist abuse hurled at him from Italy fans who purport that “there’s no such thing as a black Italian”.

This brings me to a conversation that I’ve had more than once, usually with American friends or colleagues, about racism in America and racism in Europe. Just the other day in fact, in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s re-election, the topic came up again. If I’m perfectly honest, I don’t think America is more or less racist than Europe or vice versa. What I think is that racism manifests differently because the contexts are different.

Don’t get me wrong, racism is a problem no matter how it manifests but fighting it requires looking at its roots and the context in which it thrives. In other words, racism doesn’t necessarily exist for the same reasons in one place as it does in another.

America, as we know it now, was built by immigrants, by people not native to its shores. And while those people haven’t always gotten along and many have been oppressed and discriminated against, they have nevertheless always been forced to co-exist. And so the diversity has always been present if not peaceful.

This is not the case in Europe and what we’re seeing now  are generations of Europeans that live in an existential no man’s land. Born in Europe, with relatively recent foreign origins, who don’t fit in the country or culture of their parents or grandparents but who haven’t been fully accepted by the societies that they grew up in. It’s an identity crisis not just for them, but for the whole continent. Coming to grips with it isn’t going to be easy and for better or worse, it’s going to take time.

Meanwhile, in America, it would be a mistake to think that upward social mobility and increased opportunities for minorities automatically means that there is less racism than before. All it definitively shows is that racism is less overt than it used to be and no longer institutionalized in the same way.

Progress has definitely been made but we shouldn’t throw political correctness into the mix and think we’re farther along than we are. Bottom line is we all have work to do when it comes to fighting prejudice.

And to take it back to Balotelli. Until I wrote this, it would never have occurred to me to compare him to Zinedine Zidane, the legendary French player (of Algerian descent), but all of a sudden the comparison makes an odd kind of sense. After France won the World Cup in 1998, the team was turned into this political and cultural instrument and used to tout the success of immigrant integration in France. Zidane, as the team’s play maker and because of his origins, found himself right in the thick of that.

There’s no doubt that Balotelli could experience something similar and I doubt he’ll be any more comfortable with it than Zidane was.


16 thoughts on “Super Mario

  1. Well written my friend. I am a huge Balotelli fan. My father has been a fan of his since his first game for Inter. We are of Italian nationality. Soccer is a big thing in our household. Racism however is something that boggles our mind. We could care less what the person looks like. A shame in the year 2012 and this is still something we deal with everyday.

  2. This is very well written. Sadly, recent studies have shown that racism in America has actually grown since Obama took office and I think that is the result of simple fear of the “unknown.” An educated, eloquent and determined African-American is not what our media depicts as a general rule.

    I can see what you mean, but must defer an opinion. It makes sense what you say and I completely agree that everything is context in the end.

  3. Very interesting perspective and post. In my American opinion, this next generation of black kids truly believe they are being judged by the contents of their character. Martin Luther King once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”

    Where it was just a dream in the generation before me , it became a reality in my generation on a socioeconomic level. I believe there is more acceptance in America than before, and, there is a sense of entitlement by the next generation of black kids in America. Read my, Nigga Please! post

  4. Your statement that “racism manifests differently because the contexts are different” hit the nail on the head. Some of those differences have become evident in comparing experiences growing up in US with those from traveling abroad . Great post.

  5. At times Balotelli seems like a real nutjob, but he’s never afraid to speak his mind, which is something I think is sadly lackly amongst so many athletes today. I don’t always agree with what he says, but he is right to speak out about racism and the necessity for zero tolerance. As much as I think he is wasted at City at the moment, he is an exceptional talent, as he proved at Euro 12.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post – racism in football puts a wider issue into a very public forum.
    As far as I am concerned, the more frank discussion there is on this matter, the closer we are to ridding football of this scourge.

  6. As an INTER fan I was disappointed with his bad attitude, but I felt disgusted when the INTER fans chanted ” there is no such thing as a black italian.” After that I cut him slack, I forgot what he had/has to deal with growing up and what he’s up against as a star player. Eto’o and even Henry have been the victims of such hatred too. It truly is a shame that FIFA has not taken a harsher stance on the issue.

    Great post!

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