Racism and Europe: Hope Lies in the Football Field

Mario Balotelli is a 20-year-old Italian football (soccer) star born in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. He plays for the Italian national football team and speaks Italian as his mother tongue. Nicknamed “Super Mario,” Balotelli is a fast and powerful striker with plenty of promise and a fiery temper.

Balotelli is also the son of Ghanaian immigrants Thomas and Rose Barwuah (his last name comes from Francesco and Silvia Balotelli, who adopted him when he was three years old). Playing in a game last year against Italian side Juventus, Balotelli faced what I’m sure is only one of many instances of outright racist behavior, as Juventus fans hung a sign which read “A negro [black] cannot be Italian.”

Balotelli’s older sister Cristina once said of her brother: “Mario is very proud to be black and Italian. He wants to represent Italy. He was born in Italy. He’s never been to Africa, not yet. His country is Italy.”

Earning only his second start for the national team, Balotelli recently played in an exhibition match against Romania, held in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt.

Initially, the match struck a promising note. As Roma activist Valeriu Nicolae recently pointed out, Italian and Romanian players alike joined in holding up a banner which read “Love Football! No Racism! No Violence!”

Things quickly turned sour when approximately 100 right-wing Italian fans made their presence felt in the HypoArena stadium, as they booed and jeered Balotelli every time he touched the ball. They also attempted to unfurl a banner reading: “No to a multi-ethnic national team” (the banner was confiscated by authorities).

As Rick Chandler from the American network NBC recently reported, “Mario Balotelli is such a lighting rod in Italy he even has a neologism named after him. They call it ‘Generation Balotelli,’ a term to describe the Italian-born children of immigrants who have been coming to Italy over the past twenty years.”

Balotelli is used to this type of abuse, and he responded coolly, saying “Where I live, the people don’t reason like these people. A multi-ethnic Italy already exists and we can do better.”

Balotelli’s plight is not unique to Italy of course, and if anything is part of a disturbing trend of rising extremism throughout Europe, be it in Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, where the At Home in Europe Project of the Open Society Foundations today released research looking at Muslims in Rotterdam.

In short, the report findings largely support what Balotelli has said about his home town of Sicily: Muslims in Rotterdam—and indeed in Leicester, Hamburg, and Berlin—have a strong sense of belonging to their neighborhood and city despite facing increasing discrimination when trying to find jobs, quality schools, and health care.

The Open Society Foundations’ Nazia Hussain summed it up best: “While Rotterdam has undoubtedly made considerable gains in integrating its diverse ethnic populations, many of these successes have been undercut by the recent spike in support for far right groups from members of wider Dutch society.”

The racist chants against Balotelli were of course the work of an angry minority, yet xenophobia seems to have taken root in far too many places across Europe. Research like that of the At Home in Europe Project shows us that hope lies at the local level, in radio stations, parks, and maybe even in football pitches.

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