Mario Balotelli’s club allowed racism to win

By MATTHEW RITCHIE | November 14, 2019

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Last week, in a shocking development, something racist happened in Europe involving soccer. 

During the second half of the Serie A match between Brescia and Verona on Nov. 3, Brescia striker Mario Balotelli grabbed the ball and punted it into the stands at the Verona supporters.

Now, this action did not occur unprompted. Balotelli punted the ball as a reaction to continuous racist chants directed at the Italian national, who is black. 

He claimed that the home crowd was making the classic monkey noises — along with other racial epithets — at him throughout the match.

Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch in protest, but was stopped by his teammates and opponents, who begged him to stay on the field. 

The referee then stopped play for five minutes to make announcements to the crowd that the slurs and chants should not continue. 

Balotelli eventually scored in the 85th minute in Brescia’s 2-1 loss.

The incident highlighted his teammates’ selfishness. 

Balotelli should not have to bear the brunt of racist chants. 

If he wants to walk off the pitch, kick balls into the stands and never play in front of that crowd ever again, that’s his prerogative. It is not his teammates’ business or job to keep him on the field.

A similar incident occurred during an international match between England and Bulgaria, when the Bulgarian fans hurled racist insults and monkey noises at black English players like Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford. 

In that instance, the England team and coach made it clear that they would walk off the pitch if that is what the black players wanted. 

They ended up staying on the pitch and destroying Bulgaria 6-0, but the point is that they were willing to stand with their black teammates.

The job of an ally is not to force Balotelli to withstand the racism just because you want to get through the match. The fact that his teammates begged and basically coerced him into playing the rest of the game means that they failed him completely. 

The job of an ally in this situation is to stand with your black teammates in whatever decision they make in how to deal with the incident.

This points to a common theme when it comes to racism: Black people are asked to get over acts of racial aggression. 

Too often, the onus is on black players to persist through racism during games instead of calling the games off. 

A much stronger stance would be to walk off the pitch with the black player to make it clear that no one should ever tolerate acts of racism. 

Instead, Balotelli was forced to carry on through the attacks and be the strong figure, with his teammates failing to let him refuse to play under those conditions. 

The reactions to this incident around the Italian top-flight league were differing. 

This year’s season has been marred by a number of racist occurrences involving black athletes, from monkey noises directed at Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku in September at Cagliari to racist chants from the Verona fans directed at AC Milan midfielder Franck Kessié in September. 

Neither group of fans received punishment from the league officials.

In this case, Balotelli received support from Napoli head coach Carlo Ancelotti and his rival club AS Roma. 

The striker shared his obvious disappointment with this statement during a postgame interview. 

“I am not saying that I am different from the other players who receive the same abuse, the same monkey noises, but the problem is that I am Italian,” he said. 

Balotelli was born to Ghanian immigrants in Italy and was adopted by Italian parents when he was three. 

He has represented the Italian national team for his entire career. He is, by all accounts, an Italian man.

The reactions on the other side were, by and large, dehumanizing. 

Luca Castellini, the leader of the Hellas Verona “ultra” fan section that hurled the racist slurs at Balotelli and a leader in the far-right party Forza Nuova in Verona, made a comment last Monday regarding the second-half conflict.

“Balotelli is Italian because he has Italian citizenship but he’ll never be fully Italian,” he said.

This comment came with a stance of denial from the Verona’s coach, fans and even the city’s mayor that the racist chants even occurred.

On top of that, the fans of Balotelli’s own club, the Brescia Ultras, took the side of Verona. The club’s fans called him “arrogant,” saying that the attitude he gives off is unjustifiable and defending the actions of the Verona fans, according to a BBC report. 

Now, punishments were doled out to Verona and Castellini. The club was punished with a partial closure of the stadium, specifically in the sections where the chants were said to originate from. Castellini was subsequently banned from Verona’s stadium until 2030 for his comments about Balotelli.

The concern is not if the punishments were fair. European soccer as a whole has been historically awful at dealing with racism within their respective leagues. 

Often a racist incident ends with a symbolic slogan that “FIFA says no to racism,” or a lot of “standing together in unity.” There needs to be more action than simply making empty statements.

At most, the countries that are host to these racist incidents receive punishments for World Cup qualifying or partial stadium closings. However, these instances still continue to happen.

Honestly, it is shocking that there was any punishment at all in the case of Balotelli, as the aforementioned cases involving Lukaku and Kessie went unpunished. But again, that is not the focus here.

The focus should be on the response of the Brescia Ultras, who failed to stand by their black player when he needed their support. 

The players that instead decided to uphold the already toxic and racist culture that persists in Italian soccer. The fact that Balotelli’s hometown is actually Brescia apparently meant nothing.

In an opportunity to stand with a black soccer player, Brescia as a whole failed to pass the test as an ally. The team forced their star to withstand the ugly racist attacks and the fans refused to provide him the necessary support after the fact. 

In a sense, they were no different than the Verona fans as they perpetuated the idea that Balotelli had to persist through the racist attacks.

Balotelli was strong and withstanding in the situation. The issue is that he should not have had to be. We should be well past the era where black athletes need to stick it out during racist attacks. It is not their job to play through racism. It never was, and it never should be.

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