Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mario Balotelli: Italy's Rising Star defies racial abuse

First Published in: Dunia Magazine

Despite efforts to promote equality and diversity, human beings are continuously being treated differently on grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or color in many walks of life. Football (soccer) is not an exception. "Super Mario" - as Mario Balotelli of Italy is fondly called - and his supporters would agree with this assertion.

David Beckham, former England captain and superstar, was recently given a one-game ban and fined for "confrontational and provocative behaviour" during a Major League Soccer (MLS) match between LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes. During the match, an angry Beckham reportedly kicked the ball at Sam Cronin and the referee standing over him as the player lay on the ground after taking a kick, frustrated at what he thought was time wasting by his opponent. A booked Beckham continued to argue unprofessionally with opponents after the final whistle. Beckham's misconduct and unacceptable behaviour did not spark a Twitter or that much of a media frenzy; neither did it get that much attention from soccer fans worldwide. Many were however disappointed and outraged by the fact that the superstar was not selected for the Great Britain Olympic football squad. Interesting.

Mindful of the aforementioned incident, replace the name David Beckham with the name Mario Balotelli and watch all hell break loose.

Commonsense suggests that a lot more should be expected from a 37-year-old David Beckham - arguably one of the most well-known athletes in the world - than from a 21-year-old, relatively inexperienced Mario Balotelli. But for some twisted reason a lot more is expected from the latter.

Whatever Mario Balotelli does attracts widespread negative criticism. He has been described as explosive, rude, unpredictable... yet everyone agrees he is super-talented. How Mario Balotelli celebrates his goals, when he celebrates them, or if he jubilates at all, are all fodder for criticism and speculation in the football world where his every move is carefully watched and heavily scrutinized. This was the case in the Euro 2012 semi-final match between Italy and Germany where Mario scored twice against Germany, catapulting Italy to the finals. He took off his shirt in celebration after the second goal - a decision that was widely ridiculed online and attracted strong disapproval, such as this tweet from a sports commentator: "#Balotelli: more brains in his feet than in his head..." Mario Balotelli is not the first player to take off his shirt after finding the back of the net and I daresay he is not going to be the last. 

In the football world, no one is stranger to players with disciplinary issues, but few are blown out of proportion and make such strong headlines as those involving Balotelli. Players with unacceptable conduct often get away unnoticed, Balotelli however always takes the bullet. Perhaps this explain why after scoring against Manchester United in October 2011, he unveiled a shirt with the words: "Why always me?"

Good news about Mario Balotelli however fails to attract enough attention. For instance, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Technical Team for Euro 2012 selected him as one of twenty three players listed in the Euro 2012 Team of the Tournament. Other players in the list include soccer heavyweights like Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden, Cese Fabregas of Spain and Spain's Andrés Iniesta - best player of the tournament. A place in Euro 2012 Team of the Tournament is a clear indication that Mario Balotelli, to the disappointment of his critics, is one of the best in European football.

The Palermo-born Italian is the first black player to appear for Italy in a major tournament. He was born on 12 August 1990 in Palermo, Italy to Ghanaian parents. "Life-threatening" health complications he suffered from as a child led social workers to recommend his parents entrusted him to the care of an Italian foster family. On 13 August 2008 - a day after he turned 18 years old, Balotelli officially became an Italian citizen. 

The talented Italian rising star has endured unprecedented racial abuse and humiliation in the hands of narrow-minded and racist members of the public. In 2009, he was racially abused by Juventus and Roma fans in Italy. In June 2009, he was pelted with bananas in a bar in Rome. As recently as February of 2012, Porto fans, a Portuguese football club, threw racial insults at Balotelli during the first leg of the Europa League. 

Italian neo-Nazis have argued that he should not play for Italy because he is "black and Jewish" (his foster mother is of Jewish descent).

Before the Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine, he threatened to walk off the pitch if racially abused. He spoke out amid concerns of racism and anti-semiticism in stadiums in Poland and Ukraine raised by a documentary aired on BBC Panorama. During the tournament, out-of-control Croatia fans racially abused him. UEFA fined the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) £65,000 (€80,000) while Balotelli stayed focused and went on to prove his worth. He solidified his position as Italy's rising star.

At Euro 2012 he wore Italy's shirt and honorably defended the colors of a nation where he is regarded by many as a foreigner. His goals reserved Italy a place in the finals.

Mario Balotelli, hate him or love him, is Italy's rising star and an inspiration to many people of African descent who refuse to break under growing racism, xenophobia and routine discrimination in Europe. Despite all odds, "Super Mario" continues to make his presence felt as a force to reckon with in European football. His talent and ability to work under unprecedented pressure and to overcome adversity is testament to the strength and resilience of the "Balotelli generation" - children of African descent born and raised in Europe but regarded as foreigners.

No one has put it better than Mario Balotelli himself: "Those who know me, love me. Those who don't know me, love me, too, or they hate me."

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