Welcome to BetaSoccer’s weekly column on European football. Every Monday, Anthony Lopopolo will break down the weekend that was in the continent’s top leagues.
Mario Balotelli is a lot of things. But when it comes to racism, he is not a liar. He is a victim, no matter how many people try to disavow him that simple right.
Sunday was not the first time Balotelli suffered from racist abuse. He has dealt with it since he was a teenager playing for Lumezzane in the third tier. It is a disgrace he continues to hear the same monkey chants at 29 years old he did when he was 15. Italy has covered its eyes and ears to the problem, and with the rise of far-right politics, racists feel more empowered than ever to spew their hate in the stands. It is their battleground.
This time, Balotelli reacted, kicking the ball toward the section of Hellas Verona supporters who were tormenting him. Then the smear campaign started in earnest. Verona manager Ivan Juric claimed Balotelli had made the entire thing up. President Maurizio Setti denied the club has a history of racism, despite clear evidence to the contrary. Federico Sboarina, the city’s mayor, was more appalled by Balotelli’s actions than the racism that occurred. Sboarina even blamed the player bringing the city into disrepute.
For them, the case was closed. They said they had not heard anything. But that does not mean it did not happen. Brescia manager Eugenio Corini, who was fired after the eventual 2-1 defeat, said he was too far away to pick up the chants, but he chose to believe Balotelli because victims deserve to be heard.
What happened has nothing to with Balotelli’s own shortcomings as a footballer or his personality. He was attacked for being black. If anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it is Balotelli, not the ultras who have time and again littered matches with racist language and Nazi propaganda.
“There’s no getting around it: if someone makes monkey noises to a player because he’s black, it’s racism,” Former player and president of Italian footballers’ association Damiano Tommassi told news agency ANSA. “I hear too many times, ‘Yes, but …’ Even if there are only one or two, it’s too many.”
Authorities who were at the match witnessed around 15 people abusing Balotelli, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport. Regardless of the number, it is confirmation racism took place and a repudiation of the people who tried to absolve Verona of their responsibilities as a public institution. They are just as complicit as the perpetrators, and so is Serie A, which refuses to consider racism a serious matter. If it is not doling out insignificant fines, it is doing nothing at all.
The danger of generalizing is, of course, real. Verona as a city is not wholly populated by racists. But ignoring racism in any form is just as harmful, especially when there is the technology to identify the culprits and the means to punish serial offenders. Turning a blind eye is a professional pastime for the people who are tasked with enforcing the rules in Italian football.
The authorities seem to put more effort into overlooking the problem than they do addressing it. The three-step protocol, for one, gives racists far too many chances to behave when, historically speaking, they are unable or unwilling to change. That is why it is important for players like Balotelli to take the matter into their own hands. There are not enough mechanisms in place to stamp out racism in the stands, and the mechanisms that are available are rarely used. Victims should have the freedom and support to choose which way to react. If Balotelli wanted to walk off in protest – and it certainly looked like he did – then his teammates should have walked off with him.
More than just a black player, Balotelli leads the life of a foreigner in Italy. No matter how much he feels Italian, he is always harassed for how unItalian he is. It is racism and xenophobia in one dangerous cocktail. If Balotelli says he feels Italian, then that should be enough. And he does, very much so.
“I am Italian, I feel Italian, I will forever play with the Italian national team,” he once said.
No one can tell him otherwise. Not the racists and not Luca Castellini, the head of Verona’s ultras, who said in a tweet – which has since been taken down by Twitter – that Balotelli is more stupid than he is n—–. He referred to his team’s own goal-scorer, Eddie Salcedo, using the same racist epithet. Castellini seemed to find amusement from the whole thing, as if it is Balotelli’s fault for not understanding their ironic jokes.
The nonchalance of it all is disturbing. The racists don’t realize they are racist or seem to care. Balotelli does not, as the former mayor of Verona said in 2013, bring it upon himself. It is not, Castellini says, all in his head. It is true he has largely wasted a promising career and that he has had his own personal struggles, but that is no justification for any of this abhorrent behavior. It is just one of many vicious cop-outs that people in Italy are too happy to use.