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.