Balotelli, Italy and racism on a collision course

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Mario Balotelli has the potential to become Italian football’s next superstar, but he’s going to have to fight all the way to bag that tag.

He’s only 18 but already he has had to cope with the pressures of playing for Inter, carrying a team through the latter part of last season and then being discarded by a new coach.

This time last year, Roberto Mancini put his trust in the teenaged wonder who had cut such swathe through the youth game that he was promoted to the first team squad at the tender age of 16.

Then Jose Mourinho arrived and seemed to take an instant disliking to the youngster’s attitude – his swaggering into training, his giggling with his friends. It was a generational thing, but the Portuguese sent young Mario back to the youth team to cool his heels.

"And don't come out till you've tidied your room"

However, real talent usually shines through, and his two goals against AS Roma two weekends ago demonstrated that he has what it takes to make a real impact – and is definitely much more effective than the lumbering Adriano.

Given further opportunities there is no doubting he will out-perform Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the club’s true star – even if the Swede doesn’t head off to Spain.

However, he will need all the support he can get. His name his Italian, he was born in Palermo, he was brought up in Brescia, he speaks with the accent of that city... but Mario is black.

The vile, racist chants from a good proportion of the Roman fans at the San Siro, followed by the same chorus from Genoa and then Fiorentina followers last Sunday, clearly indicates that he is in danger of becoming more of a hate figure than an Italian icon.

Sadly, most Italians shrug at any suggestion of racism and go about their business as normal. And, disturbingly, the football authorities are no different.

Roma were fined a mere 8,000 Euro and warned about the behaviour of their fans, while Genoa and Fiorentina are still awaiting the outcome of a follow-up inquiry.

The events during the Roma game in particular throw into sharp relief just how far Italian football is from accepting that racism exists, never mind attempting to eradicate it.

Balotelli had just scored his second goal of the evening and reacted to the taunts by putting his finger to his lips to silence his tormentors, and then stuck his tongue out in the direction of Christian Panucci.

It is debatable whether the latter gesture was aimed at the defender, but at the time Panucci took such umbrage to the perceived piece of petulance you would have thought his family honour had been brought into question.

Then, there was the furore over his supposed dive to win a penalty – and even though no one could come to a clear conclusion, the reaction was a universal “The lad needs to learn respect.”

Know his place, in other words.

This being Italy, the advice has been dished out by the senior citizens, such as former Roma coach Carlo Mazzone. “I would have severely reprimanded him if he had been my player,” claimed the 71-year-old – who, as Brescia coach, once ran half the length of the pitch to berate the Atalanta fans who had been insulting his mother.

Francesco Totti even had the temerity to preach from the moral high ground of a man who once humiliated defender Igor Tudor in front of millions after Roma thrashed Juventus 4-0 – and of course was reduced to spitting at Christian Poulsen when he couldn't handle some close marking at Euro 2004.

Totti shows his class

An Italian pitchside reporter for RAI Sport even suggested that Manchester United had engaged in racist chants towards Balotelli and Patrick Vieira during the Champions League tie at Old Trafford – this as a sort of “you know, the English are as bad as us.”

However, Balotelli’s brother and agent claimed he wasn’t aware of anything untoward, apart from the usual booing that any player with a bit of class receives at away grounds.

That supposed incident has been quietly forgotten, but at least Inter official Ernesto Paolillo cut to the core of the matter when he spoke out about the unpleasant incidents at the San Siro during the Roma match. He even dared to use the r-word.

“Mario reacted to the racist chanting from the Roma fans – it was an act of defiance,” he maintained.

Given the way in which the subject has been ignored, fudged and clouded, Balotelli will have to remain defiant for some time to come.

---------------------------------------------- More to read...

Balotelli profile on Talentspotter

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