This is a special guest blog from Christopher Testa. Check him out on Twitter.
With 32 countries from five continents competing against one another for glory, the 2014 World Cup naturally sees old international rivalries played out on the field. There’s talk of settling old scores and stereotypes of national identity.
Some of these are being thrown into doubt.
Not that it’s anything new. International football has always broken down cultural and racial barriers, slowly but surely.
Before the first World Cup was even held, Uruguay became the world’s greatest team and one of its early stars wasn’t even wanted in the game by many, just because he was black.
The grandson of slaves from southern Africa, Isabelino Gradín played for Uruguay in the first ever South American championship and finished as top scorer.
Chile lodged a complaint that Uruguay was using black footballers. Three years later at a tournament in Brazil, local newspapers and onlookers were outraged that a black footballer was playing (and starring).
Gradín only had the chance to play international football because Uruguay was progressive for its time. For Uruguay, progress paid off.
The little country went on to win two Olympic gold medals and two World Cups before Brazil even won the first of its now-unmatched five world titles – all of which it largely owes to black footballers from Pelé and Garrincha to Ronaldo and Cafú.
It’s been almost a century since Isabelino Gradín left his mark. How far have we progressed since then?
It depends where you look.
For decades, the finest descendants of north and west African migrants have represented former European colonial powers.
France, Portugal and the Netherlands all owe their best ever players and international success to former colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.
In 2014, Algeria has enjoyed its greatest ever World Cup with 17 of is 23 players born and raised in France.
Just as France has long benefited from north African talent, Algeria is now reaping the rewards of advanced training programs and coaching in France, which aren’t available in Algeria.
You could say it’s win-win. And who’s to say that one day a Zidane or a Karim Benzema won’t consider playing for Algeria to be a viable career choice?
Multiculturalism is bringing other nations World Cup glory too.
Belgium is not, despite what some would have you believe, a fictitious country. It is the real deal, and Belgians are also enjoying their finest generation of footballers for many a decade – a group which couldn’t contend without its stars of Moroccan, Kenyan and Congolese descent.
The Swiss too were only a couple of minutes away from recording their finest World Cup effort since the 50s. Despite the anti-immigration sentiment that’s bubbled away in the Alpine bastion of neutrality over the past decade, this Swiss side is mostly made up of a group of kids whose families arrived seeking refuge from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Then there’s Italy. After a rather ungracious elimination from the World Cup – a failure, which largely fell down to Italy’s lack of respect for their Latin American opponents and the foreign conditions they played in – striker Mario Balotelli felt the need to respond via Instagram to a video message left by a ‘fan’.
The man who recorded it was blunt – “you aren’t Italian, Mario. Quit.”
Balotelli’s problem here is that his home is Brescia, well within the confines of italy’s borders.
If the man was referring to Mario’s birthplace, that would be Palermo; a city some Italians consider to be Africa’s northernmost outpost but which every sane individual and political entity in the world recognises as Italian.
Despite this, Balotelli was made to wait 18 years to be recognised officially as Italian thanks to the country’s nationality law, which favours bloodlines over birthplaces.
“I didn’t choose to be Italian. I wanted (Italian nationality) strongly because I was born in Italy and have always lived in Italy,” Balotelli wrote.
“I am proud to have given everything for my country. But perhaps, as you people say, I am not Italian.
“Africans would never betray one of their ‘brothers’. Never. In this regard, we negroes, as you call us, are light years ahead.”
Balotelli’s birth parents are Ghanaian but his accent, name, language and culture are not. In a 2012 interview with Noel Gallagher, the striker told the Oasis guitarist he’d “never been to Africa in his life.”
Balotelli is not the first black man to play for Italy. His predecessors, Fabio Liverani and Matteo Ferrari, were both born to Italian fathers though. More importantly, neither was ever a household name.
Balotelli does court controversy even more regularly than he courts the transfer interest of Europe’s top football clubs. Despite his claims that he’s a shy person who just wants the media to leave him alone, his hairstyles, outbursts and social media activity keep him well under the spotlight.
He doesn’t endear himself to the broad section of the general public who dislike egocentric ‘stars’.
But disliking Mario’s character isn’t a valid excuse for blasting him with racist abuse. Antonio Cassano is no stranger to egocentric behaviour or spectacular tantrums but he instead enjoys the reputation of a loveable rogue – the sort of esteem Balotelli is held in back in Manchester, where he spent two and a half years.
And if there are any doubts the ‘Balotelli issue’ comes down to anything other than some Italians’ backward idea of racial purity, the confirmation arrives in the form of some of Mario’s teammates.
Gabriel Paletta and Thiago Motta are not Italian. Both played a part in Italy’s World Cup disappointment. The former was born and raised in Argentina and holds Italian nationality rather distantly through his great-grandfather. The latter is a Brazilian with an Italian grandfather. Neither finds himself at the centre of racist insults.
Nor does Giuseppe Rossi, who would’ve gone with Italy to Brazil were he fit enough and whose Twitter bio proudly states “hometown is always NJ [New Jersey].” That’s without even mentioning another would-be Italian footballer, the wonderfully named Rômulo Souza Orestes Caldeira – Brazilian, for those playing at home.
Not that calling on the descendants of Italian emigrants is a fresh idea for the Azzurri, who won two World Cups in the glory days of fascism with a bunch of guys born in Argentina.
Mauro Camoranesi was a starter in Italy’s 2006 triumph and, after the final victory over France, he told the world the win was for “todos los pibes del barrio.” A perfectly natural dedication for a guy from Tandil, south of Buenos Aires.
Camoranesi, who struggled to sing the Italian national anthem, could barely be more Argentine if he were to have begun cooking an asado in the middle of the park.
This isn’t to say these footballers shouldn’t play for Italy either. They all tell a wonderful story of the positive side of global migration and multiculturalism.
But in light of all this, there’s no point calling a spade anything else. Mario Balotelli only receives insults and has his belonging questioned because of the colour of his skin.
The early end to Italy’s World Cup dream will give those Italians who abuse him a little extra time to have a think about their embarrassing ideas of racial purity and national identity.
If they have any intelligence, they’ll learn to get behind the man who remains best placed to lead Italy to success over the next four years.
No doubt if he does, his one-time abusers will be quick to slap him with the label of “made in Italy.”