News earlier this week that Italian striker Mario Balotelli had, for about the zillionth time, been on the receiving end of a racist incident in his birth nation shouldn’t have come as any surprise.
That this one came from an executive with his own club shouldn’t, either. We’ve seen that before, too.
After three relatively successful years in France, the abuse resumed immediately when Balotelli returned to Serie A with hometown club Brescia earlier this year.
“The problem is I’m Italian,” Balotelli, born in Sicily to Ghanian immigrants and raised by a foster family, said this week following the latest unsavory episode.
More to the point, the problem is that the color of Balotelli’s skin means that will never ever be Italian enough, at least to some.
That was true when he was a teenager at Inter Milan and considered one of the most promising young players in the global game. It was true when he moved from Manchester City to AC Milan in 2013. And it was true when he represented the four-time World Cup-winning Italian national team on the biggest stage at Brazil 2014, where he scored a goal that beat England in the opener.
Now that he’s back home — literally having signed a multi-year deal to play in the city he grew up in — it’s clear that Balotelli is never going to be fully welcome. In recent weeks, the situation has become untenable.
The now-29-year-old Balotelli has always been uncompromising when it comes to racist attacks, and rightfully so. He once said he’d kill anyone who threw a banana at him during a match. Still, that righteous stance has only encouraged his abusers. They know they can get to him.
His former manager at Inter and Man City, Roberto Mancini, suggested years ago that Balotelli needed to grow a thicker skin. His teammates have said the same. It’s been a recurring theme. Even after Balotelli was abused by Verona fans earlier this month and responded by booting the ball into the stands, players from both teams implored him to stay on the field and ignore the despicable chants rather than walk off the field in solidarity with him. (Balotelli remained on the pitch and scored in the 2-1 loss.)
After all, pretending racial abuse doesn’t exist is a lot easier than confronting it head-on, especially for those who haven’t been on the receiving end of it. Yet the unfortunate truth is that Balotelli isn’t going to change the ugly side of Italian soccer. Not by himself, anyway, and certainly not during what’s left of his playing career.
Now, finally, Balotelli seems to be coming to the realization that he’d be better off taking his talents somewhere else for good. Perennial Champions League participant Galatasaray of Turkey is reportedly interested. As long as Balotelli remains in Europe, though, he’s going to remain a target.
Which is why a switch to MLS makes all the sense in the world.
Balotelli has long seemed like the kind of player who’d eventually end up in the United States’ and Canada’s top league. He has the pedigree and the star power, and when he’s in the mood, he can still win a match by himself. For the first time, there seems to be real interest in him from MLS clubs, with Toronto FC apparently open at least to the possibility of inking him when the transfer window opens in January.
But signing Balotelli — and this has to be said — does represent a significant risk. He won’t come cheap, and for all the horrible things people have said to and about him, the questions about his maturity are valid.
Balotelli’s list of indiscretions on and off the field are long and troubling. He’s crashed cars. Associated with known mobsters. Accidentally set his house ablaze with fireworks. He received four red cards during the 2011-12 season alone while with City. He was disciplined by that club for, among other things, throwing darts at a youth team player.
He was also a much younger man then. And it’s fair to wonder how much the way he’s been treated for most of his life stoked those flames of rebellion.
Perhaps the relative anonymity he’d find on this side of the Atlantic would allow Balotelli to live a more normal life and rediscover his love for the game. Superstars from David Beckham to Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic relished living in the U.S., where they were mostly left alone. Balotelli’s stateside fame obviously pales in comparison to theirs.
And while the U.S. has its own shameful history of racism, the fact is it’s light-years ahead of much of Europe in terms of how athletes of color are viewed. That’s not to say incidents don’t happen, but the idea of entire swaths of fans chanting racial epithets at players during a game is almost unthinkable across North American sports.
Besides, Balotelli can still play. He managed 41 goals in 76 Ligue 1 appearances between 2016 and this spring for Nice and Marseille. He would instantly become one of the top attackers in MLS. There’s not many teams he couldn’t help. Besides Toronto, the LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Montreal Impact have been mentioned as potential destinations. (Miami too, although the off-field distractions there combined with the possibility of Patrick Vieira — with whom Balotelli clashed as manager of Nice — coaching the expansion side probably makes South Florida a poor fit.)
More than money, recruiting Balotelli would take guts. But in the right environment, with the right support system around him, treated with the dignity he deserves, Balotelli could well thrive in MLS. Here’s hoping he gets the opportunity.
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