The year is 1461 – Portuguese explorers have just sailed onto the shores of modern day Sierra Leone, just above the Gulf of Guinea. It’s the tipping point of the age of exploration, and these original navigators and merchants are about to join forces with local African kingdoms to commence the single greatest movement of forced human labour: The Atlantic Slave Trade.
Historians estimate that around 12 million people were sold from the Dark Continent, in an enterprise that lasted some 400 years. The Atlantic Slave Trade marked a reshaping of the globe’s structure in every cultural, economic, and sociological sense. Its vestiges are still felt today, with regions of Africa struggling to adapt following the depletion of population, decimation of cities and centres, and subsequent dependence on former colonial rulers – and most recently, Chinese neocolonialism. Naturally, immigration from these areas has been profound, particularly in the post-World War II era.
England, France, and Germany have approached post-colonialism and globalism in their own distinct ways, whereas other nations have endured less direct routes of immigration and cultural meshing. Italians – suspicious of their neighbours on the other side of town – have a long history of family feuds, provincial wars, and foreign control. “Sceptical” would be the proper word to describe Italian attitudes towards the unknown.
In recent years, the deposition of Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi, and the Boko Haram-led terrorism and economic crisis in Nigeria has seen hundreds of thousands of migrants head to Italy in search of asylum. In 2017 alone, 85,000 made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, with thousands drowning in the sea before reaching their final destination. Of those that survive these hazardous trips on overcrowded boats without life rafts, many find themselves without opportunity in a nation struggling with its own financial woes. It’s a truly modern catastrophe.
Subsequently, there has been a resurgence of far right European political organisations such as Italy’s Lega Nord. While not illegitimate, these parties have a habit of attracting young, aggressive and uneducated followers who feel lost or disenfranchised. They often become radical, and use the stadium as their personal political forum. Since 2010, coinciding with the rise of the far-right Forza Nuova party, there has also been a dramatic rise in racial abuse.
Within these groups, there often a minority who are driven purely by malice. They are the ignorant, the xenophobic, and the racist. They can often by identified by their monkey chants, performed with the sole purpose of unnerving players of colour. The psychological background of these individuals is often defined by little exposure to other cultures other than their own, poor education, blaming others for their own shortcomings in life, and personal or familial issues.
When the pieces of this puzzle start to fall into place, one begins to understand the complexities of Mario Balotelli’s psychological make-up. An emotional and chaotic life story, plagued by identity issues, domestic racism and rebellion, all interspersed with moments of sheer brilliance. This is the tale of Mario Balotelli.
Bits and pieces of his story are known by most sporting fans: adopted by the wealthy Silvia and Francesco Balotelli, after his Ghanaian immigrant parents could not afford the costly medical bills incurred after a life-threatening intestinal disease. Then, with his God-given talents, becoming a teenage star at Inter. Followed, of course, by the controversies that led to him becoming known as the bad boy of Italian football.
Yet, for a long time, the Palermo-born player was not even legally Italian, regardless of his birthplace and upbringing, or the fact that he considered his Balotelli-siblings his true brothers and sister. In truth, he rarely felt an internal member of the community, in a society that inherently feared outsiders. In fact, it wasn’t until the day after his 18th birthday, under the spotlight of the media and in respect to citizenship laws of jus sanguinis that he officially became an Italian citizen.
Some may look at Mario and judge him a “wasted talent” – Italy’s next great striker who never was. An immature player whose outbursts and antics just bogged him down. Automatically discounted. But when we dig through the layers of where and how he grew up, we come to understand him. Digesting the pressures piled onto the young man, we unravel the obstacles Super Mario has had to hurdle, just like his pipe-plumbing Nintendo counterpart.
Two-year-old Mario was lucky to survive. His genetic father, Thomas Barwuah, would travel for work, taking a 12-hour overnight train from Palermo every weekend, in order to pay for his medical expenses. The doctors saw the toddler’s situation as grim, and his parents brought him to be baptised in case of death. Thomas and Rose moved the family to Brescia in the more industrialised north, sharing a studio flat with another African family. After consulting local social services, they decided it would be best to relinquish their sickly son to a foster setting.
While his parents were granted weekend visits, they were never able to claim custody over Mario again. It could be argued that the see-sawing between families did more harm than good. He was a confused boy, unsure if he had been abandoned by his parents – or were there shades of grey between being wanted, and being abandoned?
Even as a child, he was aware that the colour of his skin had made him different, and his identity suffered as a consequence, asking his teacher if his “heart was black.” There are also the stories of him sticking his hands and arms in boiling water to “rub off” the black, and worried that he would have to move “back” to Africa after spending weekends with the Barwuahs. To quote Wright Thompson, “they (the dramatic stories) read like something a white liberal Italian would want to be true.” Yet, when reading between the lines, we can imagine how isolation issues were affecting Mario’s well being.
The Balotellis offered him a lifestyle his parents could only dream of. Into his teen years, he had become fully healthy, with two brothers and a sister at his side. Accusations of abandonment, psychological extortion, emotional blackmail, and even child abuse from Mario have been waged against the Barwuahs since his rise in football. His father quickly refuted these claims, and blamed the Italian Court and inability to afford an attorney for his failure at rekindling their genetic relationship.
These pressures and traumas can be attributed to Mario’s antics: The darts being thrown at Manchester City youth team players. The sword fight with bowling pins outside an Indian restaurant 12 hours before a match. The setting his bathroom on fire from indoor fireworks celebrations. And a fondness for visiting strip clubs within hours of match kickoff to name just a few.
Growing up in a racially-charged area of Northern Italy inflicted hardship on a boy that needed reassurance of who he was. Some of the on-field challenges he faced would come from the provocative minority – those who wanted to see him fail due to him being black. In their eyes, he was a thief in a “uniform” of Italian heritage, and a symbol of detriment to an already bankrupt society.
During his first professional match at age 15, he came on as a substitute in a Serie C1 game. He immediately nutmegged a member of the opposition. The player retaliated with a brutal foul, but the teenager got right back to his feet. Some of the Padova fans directed monkey chants towards Balotelli despite the fact he was little more than a kid.
His involvement in racial incidents spilled into the national limelight when he was just 18 years old. Balotelli had become Inter’s youngest scorer in the Champions League and other clubs were beginning to take notice. In April 2009, the teenager scored in a 1-1 draw against Juventus and the monkey chants were back. He had done his speaking on the pitch, but unfortunately, the racism affected him throughout the campaign. Nevertheless, he rose above it, becoming a valuable asset in Inter’s Scudetto triumph that season.
During Jose Mourinho’s first season in Milan, his relationship with Balotelli had been volatile. The player had fallen into lazy habits, leading the Portuguese tactician to declare: “As far as I’m concerned, a young boy like him cannot allow himself to train less than people like Figo, Córdoba, and Zanetti.” The racial abuse seemed to go hand in hand with the discourse between him and his coach, with the hardcore fans smelling his psychological weaknesses. Juventus ultras took advantage of the situation, and were once again the culprits of racial abuse. They faced only nominal punishments from the league’s governing board, the FIGC.
His club issues then fed into his personal life. Before an under-21 game in Rome in June 2009, he was drinking in a bar with friends, when suddenly a group of people threw bananas at him. “It was lucky that the police arrived quickly because, I swear, I would have beaten them. I would have really destroyed them. I hope it never happens again,” Balotelli later said.
His comments were nothing out of the ordinary for a teenager, and it was the kind of reaction the dimwit offenders had hoped to conjure. But while trying to avoid giving them any attention, sometimes there is only so much a human can take. Commenting further on the predicaments in which he found himself, he said:
I think I am a genius but not a rebel. I have my life, my world, I do what I want, without annoying anyone. I believe I am more intelligent than the average person. The talent God gave me is beautiful and wonderful, but it is difficult because you are always facing other people keen to judge you.
The young striker was letting the negative pressure get under his skin, and he became isolated from his manager, teammates, and even his agent. In March 2010, he appeared on the Italian show Striscia la Notizia wearing an AC Milan jersey. The media had a feeding frenzy. He later apologised through a statement on Inter’s official website, but a shirt thrown to the ground after a Champions League semi-final victory against Barca was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back – he was sold to Manchester City the following summer.
While he had escaped the racial hotbeds that were Italian stadiums, his reuniting with manager Roberto Mancini in the English Premier League had its own issues. His debut season at City was notable for some harsh treatment from the referees but ironically, ended with the 2010 Golden Boy award.
In the 2011/12 season, Mario gave the officials plenty of reasons for disdain. A stamp on Scott Parker, bickering with teammates over free kicks, and four red cards saw Mancini lose his patience with his prodigy. After receiving a red card against Arsenal, he threw his boot through a plasma TV in the dressing room.
Manchester City kitman Les Chapman recalls his special moments with his former co-worker:
He was a complete one-off, the most unpredictable man on the planet… He was bright, he wasn’t stupid, and he was very generous. He would go into a garage and pay for everyone’s petrol or give a homeless guy a wad of cash. Then he used to wonder why his car was impounded 27 times… it was painted in camouflage and he parked it on double yellows outside San Carlo restaurant in the middle of Manchester every day. I opened his locker after he left and all his parking tickets just fell out!
On the last match day of the season, his wildness transformed itself into the stuff of fairy-tales: The Citizens found themselves a goal down at home to QPR, a scoreline that would have handed their cross town rivals, Manchester United, the league title. Mancini tossed his player onto the pitch as a late substitute, in a desperate attempt to find the two goals needed to reverse their fortunes. Remarkably, Edin Dzeko scored in the 92nd minute, leaving the home side with two minutes of stoppage time to grab another.
In the 94th minute, on the edge of the 18-yard-box, Mario fell to the ground after contact from a defender. Just before collapsing, he made one last touch – a sliding layoff to Sergio Aguero. Time seemed to slow down as his strike partner took a touch before coolly slotting the ball into the back of the net, giving Manchester City their first league title since 1968. The controversial Italian had immortalised himself with the Blue half of Manchester.
A deduction in wages for his previous season’s behaviour and ongoing issues with management eventually led to the Italian’s exit. In January 2013, he headed for AC Milan, where a return of 12 goals in 13 appearances was seen as a monstrous comeback for the striker now in his early 20s. But once again, the season was plagued by incidents of racial abuse aimed at a Milan squad featuring several black stars.
Just weeks before Balotelli’s return, Kevin-Prince Boateng famously walked off the pitch during the friendly against Pro Patria. His teammates had joined him, and while the majority of those in the tiny stadium had applauded Boateng’s decision, a minority continued their assault long after he was gone. Further acts of discrimination followed in the league games against Juventus, Fiorentina, and AS Roma.
The match against the Giallorossi was officiated by Gianluca Rocchi from Florence. Milan and Fiorentina had been neck and neck in the standings and fighting for European competition, prompting suggestions of a judicial conflict of interest. Halfway into the first half, racist chanting trickled throughout the stands, but truly erupted right on the 40-minute mark, when Balotelli fouled Marquinho. While Mario had stayed poised when receiving his punishment, Sulley Muntari seemed to have a nervous yet aggressive reaction. He grabbed the referee’s arms – seemingly explaining the impact the chanting had on his squad – but when he did so, the chanting grew evermore deafening throughout the San Siro.
The stadium announcer twice suggested that the match would be called off due to the behaviour of the fans, but Rocchi led the first half to a close. In the 48th minute, the match was paused until the abusers had regained control of themselves. Francesco Totti walked over to the touchline in an attempt to halt the abuse. Play resumed just a minute-and-a-half later.
“(Racism) makes me feel alone… This time I think I have changed my mind, and if it happens one more time, I’m going to leave the pitch because it’s so stupid.” Balotelli said in a CNN interview following the debacle.
Then-Milan head coach, Max Allegri came to his player’s defence: “The problem of racism is not down to Mario, but instead it is due to a lack of culture from these people who go to the stadium and act in a certain way towards people with a different skin colour. This is wrong. Balotelli is behaving well. Now and again he reacts out of frustration, but I think he has improved a lot and will improve even more.”
Just a year before, Mario helped lead the Azzurri to the European Championship final. His partnership with Antonio Cassano was nothing short of magic. However, before the tournament in Poland had started, the team visited Auschwitz together. Mario’s mother was Jewish and her parents were Holocaust survivors, and being in the presence of the concentration camp had a personal, penetrating effect on his demeanour. On the train tracks where millions of people had been transported to their deaths, Mario sat in silence. A full 70 years later, he was facing similar ignorance to that which his adoptive grandparents had braved.
After an unsuccessful stint at Liverpool and return to Milan, he eventually sought refuge in France. On deadline day of summer 2016, Balotelli joined OGC Nice on a free transfer. A club based in a resort town, and maybe even a place he could find peace within himself and in its borders.
A haul of 17 goals from 28 appearances helped his new club to a third-place finish, behind only Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain, as the player continued to work on becoming the finished product – in his own way. Mistakes were made and red cards were issued, including one for kicking out against Bordeaux’s Igor Lewczuk in the last minute of a game, but these incidents were few and far between.
His effort and focus on the field seemed to improve match by match, resulting in a run of 16 goals in 16 home games, and the obliteration of Monaco’s record 16-match Ligue 1 winning streak in September 2017. In November of the same year, he scored twice in a 3-1 win that lifted Nice into the Round of 16 in the Europa League – a few weeks later, a stunning goal to conquer Nantes. The newfound leadership qualities were something to behold.
All too often we hear excuses from politicians, club owners, football personnel, and ultras that the racial name calling and chanting is “just a way to unnerve the player;” a device not racially motivated, but one of sport. But when we look at the past 500 years of history, we understand the depth of the issue. Major historical events, commencing with the Atlantic Slave Trade, nullify this argument. Those in our contemporary times should know better. It’s these sub-tones of society, that manifest in football, which players of colour are too-often faced with.
There has been little institutional support to challenge racism inside the stadium, and ultimately, Balotelli will be responsible for himself. While he has not been able to escape the monkey calls from the crowds, the January 2017 incident against Bastia being another prime example, Super Mario has jumped over many hurdles throughout his decade-long professional career.
Despite his mistakes, he has made strides in growing up and overcoming his internal identity issues. Yes, Mario may always be Mario – he still enjoys spending some of his fortune on Ferraris and mansions, but has accepted his responsibilities after being confirmed as the paternal father of his daughter, Pia. He has also stopped drinking alcohol. Whether or not the ignorant minority accepts him into “their” homeland, he is very much the face of a new breed of Italians: eccentric, brash, convivial, and bighearted – forever and un-simply, Super Mario.
“I am Italian, I feel Italian, I will forever play with the Italian national team.”
– Mario Balotelli
This article would have been impossible without the scholarly and behind the scenes work of Dr. Alberto Testa and Dr. Mark Doidge. “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” – St. Francis of Assisi
Words by Wayne Girard @WayneinRome