Italian footballer Mario Balotelli has once again been the target of racial abuse, this time while the star striker was training with the Italian national team at the Coverciano Complex near Florence. A small group of young men reportedly hurled racial slurs at Balotelli as he trained with his teammates less than 50 meters away. Balotelli, who has repeatedly been the target of racist remarks over the past seasons, immediately informed team officials of the situation, and police were called to disperse the offending group. Although Balotelli acted in a calm and professional manner, he was understandably distressed by the occurrence, saying to teammate Claudio Marchisio that he was only the target of racial attacks when in Rome or Florence.
Italy has long had a problem with racism, and this has transferred into the world of football. Perhaps the most notorious recent example took place in 2013, when Balotelli and his AC Milan team mate Kevin Prince-Boateng were greeted by Roma fans with a chorus of monkey noises, prompting Balotelli to threaten leaving the game. Balotelli’s teammates have been quick to support him in this latest instance of racism, with striker Ciro Immobile commenting that it was unfortunate that racism was still a part of everyday life in the twenty-first century. Even Giancarlo Abete, the head of the Italian national football team, was quick to voice his support for Balotelli, saying that the behaviour of the fans was completely unacceptable. Particularly stunning, however, is the fact that this racial abuse was delivered by Italian fans towards the star Italian striker at an Italian national practice, prompting writer Joe Krishnan to express his sympathies for the unfortunate Balotelli.
Italy, who open the World Cup against England in Manaus on June 14, will be looking for Balotelli to lead their team to glory once again, and will undoubtedly be hoping that he can put this latest instance of targeted racial abuse behind him. Balotelli will be particularly important for Italian football aspirations given the fact that Italy has been grouped with England, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, a challenging group by any metric. This group will be made even more difficult by the fact that Italian goalkeeper, and captain, Gianluigi Buffon has recently announced that he and his wife Alena will be separating, leading Italian coach Cesare Prandelli to insist that this would not affect his preparations.
The prevalence of racism in football has haunted Balotelli throughout his career, although the frequency of these events has certainly ramped up since Balotelli’s departure from Manchester City, where he was instrumental in winning both the Premier League and the FA Cup. The superstar Italian striker will be part of a deep offensive unit when Italy takes to the pitch in Brazil, although it remains to be seen which of the seven strikers currently on the team will make the 23 man final squad, but his play will still have an important role in deciding Italy’s footballing fate. It remains unclear whether Balotelli will be the target of racial abuse during the upcoming World Cup, but even if he is, he likely has the experience required to shake it off once again.
Commentary by Nicholas Grabe