When Mario Balotelli scored the winner against Germany in the semifinals of Euro 2012, people believed he would become the poster boy of Italian football and the superstar who would lead the sleeping giants into the next great era of Azzurri dominance. The image of Super Mario removing his jersey and flexing his muscles while his teammates ran towards him and the fans screamed his name remains iconic, for it was a glimpse into a glorious new era of Italian football spearheaded by the Black son of an immigrant.
Or so it seemed at that time.
The dream for this progressive and inclusive phase of one of the biggest footballing powerhouses in the world never came to pass. It failed to survive against the onslaught of hundreds of years of belief in racial superiority and nationalist pride in the minds of the players, supporters, coaches, politicians and everyone associated with ‘Bel Paese’.
The shattering of this dream bore an uncanny resemblance to the thumping defeat of Italy by the then-World Champions, Spain, in the final. Despite all their hard work and tenacity, the Italians posed no threat to their technically superior and tactically astute Spanish counterparts and it seemed like a mercy that the final score-line was only 4-0. The Azzurri fought valiantly and resolutely against the experienced reigning champions, just like Mario did his whole life. His dark skin tone and Jewish foster mother, set in a conservative culture famed for its toxic nationalism and machismo during his childhood years in Concesio in northern Italy, made his life a constant battle.
While the semi-final against Germany ended on the jubilant note of a Black man displaying his love of his motherland, the final showed us the tears of the same man who, in spite of his best efforts, failed to immortalize himself in the hearts of the Azzurri faithful. This didn’t stop Balotelli. He wanted to mark his name in the history pages of Italian football as one of the greats of the game, just like his teammates on the Italian National Team, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Gianluigi Buffon, as well as predecessors Alessandro Nesta, Franco Baresi and Fabio Cannavaro. But, was it possible for a Black man to make his name and be revered by the people of a country that was flirting with fascism and the ideology of race purity?
While Balotelli’s brief and successful spell at A.C Milan gave fuel to his hope that his countrymen would one day adore him the same way they adored other Italian footballers, his current tenure at Brescia serves as a testament to the fact that it seems he will be forever judged on the basis of his skin color instead of his nimble footwork and thunderous right peg.
During Brescia’s away league game at Hellas Verona, the 29-year-old striker became the victim of monkey chants by the home supporters. Instead of keeping his head down and enduring it like he was “supposed” to do, Balotelli did what he always does. He took action. He kicked the ball into the stands and stormed off the pitch and perhaps in this moment of defiance, Balotelli finally realised the truth that had been staring him in the eye for a long time. They would never see him as truly Italian. Any doubts about this idea were soon put to rest when the Verona Ultra leader Luca Castellini posted on Facebook after the game: “Balotelli is Italian because he has Italian citizenship but he will never be able to be totally Italian.”
The truth that has always been consistently and conveniently denied for a long time, under the thin veil of ignorance, is finally bare for all to see. Racism is well and truly alive in modern football. Not only is it alive, but it is thriving, and the football governing bodies, namely FIFA and UEFA, are helpless to stop it. Or, they simply don’t care. When the president of European Soccer’s governing body, UEFA, made the bold and commendable edict that referees in the various European Leagues should stop games marred by racial abuse, the footballing community stood up and applauded. It seemed racism would finally be kicked out of football.
The reality was, however, completely different. Just hours after the President of UEFA made his public announcement to combat racism, Moise Kean became another footballer in a long queue of players to be the victim of racial abuse. But, like his countryman Balotelli, Kean didn’t back down. After scoring his team’s second and winning goal against Cagliari, the 19-year-old Italian forward of Ivorian descent ran towards the Isolani patrons, who had been racially insulting him throughout the game, and celebrated with his arms spread wide.
A moment that should have finally been the tipping point that kickstarted a nationwide campaign against racism spearheaded by one of the biggest clubs in world football, Juventus, turned out to be another missed opportunity and a moment of great disappointment. When Kean’s Juventus teammate and fellow countryman Leonardo Bonucci told the media that “Kean should shoulder an equal share of the blame as his celebration had provoked the Cagliari supporters,” it was clear that many people like Bonucci had accepted the prejudiced beliefs of race purity and practiced it in their lives, perhaps unintentionally, due to a distinct lack of awareness about the brutal history of racism.
In many European countries, especially in the Eastern European Nations, the idea of racial superiority and Nazi ideology go hand-in-hand. A startling example of this came during England’s Euro Qualifier against Bulgaria at the Levski Stadium in Sofia, in which the black English players were the subject of racist taunts from the hostile home crowd. When the cameras turned towards the crowd, they showed white men and women of different age groups with swastikas tattooed on their bodies, making Nazi salutes and directing monkey chants and gestures towards the English players of color.
The other major tool which adds fuel to the fire of racism in this day and age is the support it gets from influential public figures like Leonardo Bonnuci, Krasimir Balakov and many others. Perhaps the biggest example of this is the massive support that Luis Suarez received not only from his teammates and coaches, but also from the Liverpool fans when he was accused of allegedly racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. The Uruguayan striker was not only backed by his manager Kenny Dalglish and his teammates, who wore t-shirts with his name and face printed on them, but also by the Liverpudlians who vehemently defended their star player on every platform. A shameful episode in the storied history of not only one of the biggest football clubs in the world but also in a city famed for its multiculturalism and liberal ideals.
While the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra saga could be dismissed as a case of a passionate bunch of loyal supporters who had been devoid of success and silverware for far too long coming to the rescue of their revered superstar and perhaps their only shot at reclaiming lost glory (a nonsensical reason, truth be told), there can be no reason at all for Liverpool Legend John Barnes coming to the defense of movie star, Liam Neeson after the Taken actor had made some shocking revelations about some of his past racist beliefs.
While Barnes later explained to the media that his support for Neeson stemmed from his appreciation of the Irish star’s honesty and regret for his past beliefs, the ex-footballer’s statement that “Liam Neeson deserved a medal for his confession of racist beliefs in the past” seemed to propagate the idea that one should be commended for doing the bare minimum. In this case, not wanting to “kill a Black man for being responsible for no other crime other than being black”.
While the media carry some blame for only running with a part of Barnes’s statement instead of showing the context and reasoning behind it, it is also undeniably true that Barnes is a man of great stature and an influential figure for millions of black kids across the globe. His words carry enormous weight, and his statement about responsibility brings to mind another instance in which Barnes should have known better.
Bernardo Silva became the latest footballer to be involved in a racism row when he tweeted two pictures side by side: one of the infamous logo of Conguitos, a popular snack widely available in Spain, and his club team-mate Benjamin Mendy. The caption ran “Guess who?” along with a couple of laughing emojis to establish and perhaps to tell us, and many black fans, that this was indeed a joke. The Portuguese star received a lot of backlash for his tweet (rightfully so) but there were some public figures who came to his defense, most notably, his club manager Pep Guardiola and, surprisingly, John Barnes.
It came as a shock to a lot of people, including me, that Barnes, a Black man who plied his trade and made his name in the racism-infested world of English football in the 1980s, and who the most iconic image of is him casually backheeling a banana thrown at him during a game, sees no problem when a white person compared his Black teammate with the extremely racially stereotyped logo of Conguitos. While it might be unfair to portray Bernardo Silva as a racist, it is also true that racism doesn’t necessarily have to present itself in the form of an antagonistic crowd displaying monkey gestures and throwing bananas on to the pitch. More often than not, racism comes at us disguised in the form of unintentional jokes and behavior that are asked to be taken lightly. This is where a lot of us, including Guardiola and numerous other public figures, fail.
However, all is not lost. Racism can be exterminated from football. It will take time and it will need a concentrated, efficient and united approach from the players, governing bodies, pundits, fans, coaches and everyone else associated with this beautiful game. But, the process needs to start soon and it must start with the football governing bodies handing out stricter punishments and harsher sentences to the perpetrators, instead of pocket change fines and laughable penalties (75,000 Euros to the Bulgarian Football Association and two game stadium ban, really?).
It could be a while before we see a Black man lifting a trophy in a moment of triumph and conquest, after fighting his way through the numerous boundaries and obstacles of race, like Ruud Gullit did in 1988 when Netherlands won their first and only major trophy in world football, the European Championship. Gullit, with his dark skin tone and dreadlocks, was their star player. Until then, the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign remains a shallow movement full of buzzwords and catchy phrases that only satisfies the sponsors and corporations.
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