|Mario Balotelli: Not just a footballer but a poster boy for an entire generation.|
Nevertheless, his flamboyant lifestyle and frequent outbursts on and off the pitch have made him a global celebrity. It is in the context of Italy's debate over migration that he has become a lightning rod for controversy. His apologists blame his excesses on having to deal with racism in Italy on a daily basis, while his detractors use him to scare whites into thinking how uncontrolled migration would be like with hundreds of thousands of nutcases calling themselves Italian. Hence his emergence as a polarizing figure emblematic of migration debates in Italy, which the press has dubbed the "Balotelli Generation":
That may be, in part, because Balotelli started to play football at the moment when Italy, buoyed by the false boom of the euro zone's party years and needing young workers to fill the deficit left by its rapidly aging population, became a magnet for economic migrants. In a photograph of Balotelli's grade-school football team, his is the only black face. It was an experience he repeated when he joined the Italian national under-21 team in 2008. His inclusion in the side reflected wider social change. Italy has become more diverse, and it has done so more rapidly than many other European countries. In 1990, the year of Balotelli's birth, just 1 Italian resident in 100 held a foreign passport. Today, that number is 1 in 12. Many of those migrants are black; many hold menial jobs. But a black middle class is also emerging as the children of migrants, born and raised in Italy and sometimes referred to as the "Balotelli generation," enter the workforce. Balotelli, the most prominent black Italian, has become a symbol of his country's uneasy transition.I am reminded of black pioneers in American professional leagues subject to similarly ugly racist taunts like Jackie Robinson in baseball. The difference is that quite a few of them debuted together, while Balotelli remains the sole black player on the Italian national team. He bears the brunt of it all. Speaking of America, his acquired fame allowed him to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a country that has next to no interest in world soccer:
This week Balotelli became just the second non-U.S. pro soccer player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine since 1994. (David Beckham was the first, in 2007.) It's an arresting cover image by photographer Jeffrey A. Salter -- Balotelli, balanced on a plexiglass platform, appears to be walking on water—and probably one of my favorite 20 SI covers of all time.Black players have encountered racism to varying extents in other European national teams as they began to play in soccer leagues, but it has toned down somewhat as familiarity has set in. (Spain is a notable exception, while some French right-wing extremists now deny its 1998 World Cup victory happened since many of the players were colored people, not "real" French.) What separates Balotelli is that Italy's national team did not feature black players until Mario came along when most of the rest already have:
Why is Balotelli on the cover? Well, in each of the past two years I've asked my Twitter followers: If you could pick one figure from the world of soccer to read about in a magazine profile, who would it be? On both occasions, Balotelli won in a landslide. The reasons are clear: Balotelli, 23, has shown extraordinary goal-scoring potential on the soccer field, and he has many sides off it: a symbol of the New Europe; a creator of madcap hijinks; an emerging leader in soccer's fight against racism.
"You can't overblow that significance," says John Foot, professor of modern Italian history at Bristol University, who has written a history of Italian football. "Even when they're talking about reforming the citizenship laws in Italy, they call it the Balotelli law.The choices facing European countries in demographic terms are similar to those facing Japan: It is hard to imagine economic growth in the face of depopulation given the latter's inherent tendencies towards deflation and economic stagnation. Nobody selected him to do so, but Mario is fighting the case for migrants in Italy against considerable racism. However, the question lingers: would migration be less of an issue if its most visible image in Italy was more like Jackie Robinson, a man of quiet dignity? With "Super Mario" riding high once more, I guess we'll never know.
"He's not just a footballer there, he's much, much more than that. He's a massive symbol. He represents the future, which, actually, is already the present. There's a whole series of second generation black players coming through in Italy and that critical mass will make the difference; it will mean Balotelli is not the only trailblazer any more.
"Being the one black born-and-bred Italian is an enormous pressure to deal with." Yet the pressure has only increased on Balotelli since Euro 2012 when his goals, which took the Azzurri to the final, assumed what Foot calls "immense symbolic power, a sign that black Italians were here to stay, something which a strong minority of Italians have found very difficult to accept".
UPDATE: Mario Balotelli is a tad self-absorbed.