Sunday, July 01, 2012
A true-born Italian.
In a couple of hours, Italian strikers Balotelli and Cassano will try and repeat their prowess against Germany and win the European Championship for Italy. But whether Italy wins or not Balotelli made his mark in the semi-finals. Not as a player, which was never in any doubt despite his ups and downs. His mark is on Italian society. In a striking way, he has changed what it means to be “Italian”.
Like so many other prominent sportsmen and women, particular black or brown ones, Balotelli represents a country which is uneasy and equivocal about whether he is truly “Italian”. Racist and crypto-racist Italians have no difficulty rejecting Ghanaian fruitpickers exploited by the camorra and the ndrangheta in the south. Most of them are irregular, their Italian is poor and above all, they’re poor and black. Ergo, they are not and cannot be Italian. Balotelli in contrast, was born in Italy, he is (now) an Italian citizen, he is a wealthy celebrity who scored the two Italian goals on Thursday. But he’s still black and like English footballers a generation ago, the racism comes out… on the field and off.
Before the Italy-England match, the Gazzetta dello Sport had a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong on Big Ben rather than the Empire State. Like Silvio Berlusconi who called a journalist an “imbecile” when he suggested that Berlusconi calling Obama “suntanned” was racist, the Gazzetta was sorry that anyone could have been stupid enough to take offence at the cartoon, not that the cartoon itself was offensive. The episode was nicely analysed by Simon Martin in the Independent where he took some flack for even talking about it.
Eighty years ago, an Italian middle-weight, national champion, Leone Jacovacci whose father was Italian and mother Conglese, was greeted on the ring and in the press with the slogan “there are no black Italians” (sometimes repeated about Balotelli). That was under fascism a few years before Mussolini “Fascist scientists” decreed that there was an “Italian race” (and that Jews were not part of it) in adocument they called The “Manifesto della Razza” which was absurd in scientific terms and would have been comic if it had not been for the Racial Laws which followed and their tragic consequences.
Italians were then as racially mixed as any other nation. Daniel Defoe’s satire on English “purity” could easily be adapted to Italy.
Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het'rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend'ring off-spring quickly learn'd to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus'd betwixt a Saxon and a Dane
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv'd all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.
Daniel Defoe, 1701
He wrote this 300 years ago in defence of the Dutch king William of Orange. A century and a half ago, the prime minister of Britain, Benjamin Disraeli, was the son of an Italian Jew. But Britain still went through sometimes violent moments trying to integrate the millions of post-war, non-white immigrants and all is still far from perfect today despite the progress. Today, the Belgian prime minister is a second generation Italian, Sarkozy is also the child of immigrants and of course there is Obama. Surely there are enough role models for well-integrated societies? Especially in sport and show business where the rules are more relaxed.
Well no. We know that there are still problems about who is a “real” Italian (or Englishman, Frenchman or whatever). This is why Balotelli is so important to push the boundaries of “Italian-ness”. There are two iconic photographs from Thursday’s match.
The first is just after his first goal when he took off his shirt to display an exceptionally well-sculpted torso (in a curious role-reversal of the Gazzetta cartoon, one paper had a cartoon of a bare-chested Mario Monti in Balotelli pose, flexing his muscles towards Europe and Chancellor Merkel). Balotelli has a fantastic body by any standards and in a country which puts much store in physical beauty, that counted.
The second is him hugging his mother. A natural enough gesture and again particularly significant in a country where “la mamma” is fundamental. In this case the picture is even more striking because he is black and she is white; it is a simbolic moment but between real people – it helps to exorcise whatever residual phobias there are over “miscegenation”.
The question of “Italian-ness” is not only about colour. There are more than half a million children born and brought up in Italy, speaking Italian as their first language, who are not Italian citizens because their parents are foreign. There are bills before Parliament which would change this but they are unlikely to see the statute book in this session.
In the meantime, Mario Balotelli is an icon and model for millions of Italians (as well as those Ghanaian fruit pickers) whatever else he does… and if he works his magic this evening, that will be another step as well as making a whole country jubilant for a few days.