29 June 2012

Can the Balotelli generation change Italy?

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“A negro cannot be Italian,” chanted the football supporters of Juventus as they played Inter Milan and Mario Balotelli, the Italian-born son of Ghanaian immigrants later adopted by an Italian family, scored a goal.

Perhaps the racists were also trying to put an opponent off.

Balotelli was proudly wearing the Italian shirt when he was booed by around 100 supporters of the team on his second international appearance, as a “No to a Multi-Ethnic National Team” banner was confiscated.

Despite the attitudes of this group, there were rapturous celebrations across Italy last night – and outside Bar Italia in London’s Soho too – as two Balotelli goals stunned Germany and sent Italy through to the Euro 2000 final.

England will be talking about racism in football again this summer, though on the pitch rather than the terraces, when former England captain John Terry faces trial for an alleged racially aggravated public order offence. But the question of who is a member of the national community has been decisively settled. Since Viv Anderson first pulled on an England shirt in 1978, a multi-ethnic English team has become a mundane and normal fact (the Scottish team’s first black presence came a century earlier). But this was contested a generation ago. When John Barnes scored one of the greatest English goals of our lifetimes, on a mazy dribble through the Brazilian team in the famous Maracana stadium in 1984 to give England a 2-0 victory, there was a hardcore of National Front influenced England fans who chanted 1-0 because black goals didn’t count.

Italy’s racism problem, however, is not confined to those organised far right “Ultra” elements who are proud to wear their racism on their sleeves.

The Gazzetta Dello Sport, the Italian football newspaper which authoritatively chronicles the nation’s sporting obsession, ran a cartoon portraying the Italian striker as the giant gorilla King Kong.

They have no similar cartoons of previous Italian stars, such as Paulo Rossi or Roberto Baggio, in their archives.

The newspaper sort of apologised, saying that they were sorry “if readers had found the cartoon offensive,” explaining that the cartoon had been in poor taste and could perhaps have been “misinterpreted”. What the alternative, correct interpretation was remains somewhat obscure.

But this was combined with vehement denials that it should be considered racist as the newspaper which is endorsing the official anti-racism slogans of UEFA during Euro 2012, and which has criticised the booing of Balotelli as “incivility”, though it is often something rather more than that too.

That this crude racial stereotyping had been published without racist intent perhaps demonstrated a lack of awareness rather than malice. The response may, perhaps, have an educative effect.

But Balotelli’s two goals against Germany could perhaps do rather more to change the way Italy thinks about who is a real Italian.

The symbolism of sport matters in changing the public conversations that we have about who we think we are.

As the historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his seminal ‘Nations and Nationalism since 1870’, “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people”.

Sport can not do everything. The joy which France took in its World Cup winning team of 1998, taken to represent how much the children of immigrants had changed the face of the modern nation, was a setback for Jean Marie Le Pen at the time after he had questioned the patriotism of the team, but did not prevent the far right continuing to mobilise afterwards. Sport can not solve the problems of the society of which it forms a part. What it can do, as with London’s winning bid for the 2012 Olympics back in 2005, is offer us a glimpse of the type of confident and shared multi-ethnic society that we could choose to be, if we are willing to go on to put in the work to live up to the story too.

Whispers of a “Balotelli generation” where Italy thinks very differently about the contribution which the Italian-born children of immigrants could make seems rather hopeful and premature. The routine use of “immigrant” to describe an Italian-born non-white generation, as well as their parents, shows there is a long way to go in a society uncomfortable with the language of race, ethnicity and racism.

“Yes to a multi-ethnic national team” would appear to be the implicit message of the Italian celebrations of “Super Mario” overnight.

I am not sure there have been any chants or banners saying that yet. Perhaps that is something Italian fans might feel like singing – when they are winning, at least.

Sunder Katwala

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