Stuck in the dark ages

Mario Balotelli endures abuse that no 19-year-old should suffer yet the racism that festers in Italian football shows no sign of going away.

The Ghanian-born forward has been a constant target of abuse from opposing supporters.
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Mario Balotelli endures abuse that no 19-year-old should suffer - for no other reason than because he is black. There is the graffiti on walls leading to the San Siro, where the Inter Milan striker plays. "Non sei un vero Italiano, sei un Africano nero," it says. Translation: "You are not a true Italian, you are a black African."

There are the unprintable racist chants and vicious boos he hears when he plays, and which live on even after matches are over in videos on the Internet. There was the time in Rome last June when, his sister says, hooligans threatened him and hurled a bunch of bananas into the bar where Balotelli was relaxing with fellow players from Italy's Under 21 squad, prompting the owner to call the police. And what have the Italian league done in response to the insults he regularly faces? Unbelievably, they slapped Balotelli with a ?7,000 (Dh37,000) fine last week.

"It's like the world is upside down," Cristina Balotelli says. "It's ridiculous, and I think my brother just doesn't want to think about it because he is so disgusted." In a fairer world, all you would need to know about Balotelli is that he is young, gifted, quick, muscular, scores goals and is nicknamed "Super Mario". He joined Inter in 2006. He made his first-team debut in December of the following year, aged just 17, as a late substitute in a 2-0 win against Cagliari. Two days after that, he scored twice in a 4-1 crushing of Reggina. With 23 goals in 68 games, a call-up to Italy's national squad may not be far off.

But the racists do not see Balotelli's skills, just the colour of his skin. Even when Inter are not playing, he has been targeted for abuse. Prosecutors in France are investigating taunts about Balotelli that Juventus supporters shouted when the club played French champions Bordeaux in the Champions League last November. Juventus fans again sang racist slurs directed at Balotelli on Wednesday, despite a plea made over Stadio Olimpico's public address system asking them to stop.

Cristina Balotelli said it is a testament to his force of character that her brother manages not to be cowed by the hatred flowing from a vocal minority of "very ignorant people" who "need an enemy and they need someone to curse". "He gets very upset but then ... he doesn't think about it any more, this is a strength," his sister says. "Of course, I know that he is hurt. If he decides to move abroad, it shouldn't just be because of this. It's like to run away, it's like to be defeated."

It is nothing new in Italy. In 2001, when 18-year-old Nigerian forward Schengun Omolade took the field for Treviso, fans hoisted a banner that said, "We don't want a black player on our team" and then left the stadium. Before that, hooligans in Rome held aloft a large banner aimed at opposing Jewish fans: "Auschwitz Is Your Country; the Ovens Are Your Homes." In 2005, Ivorian defender Marc Zoro was reduced to tears by racist boos and insults hurled at him by Inter supporters.

There have been modest fines, bans and threats from up high that matches could be suspended or that clubs could even be sent down to lower leagues. And yet, as Balotelli knows too well, still it goes on. Deep-rooted racism is not restricted to Italian football - as was shown last week when violent clashes erupted between African crop-pickers and local residents in southern Italy. After those riots, in which dozens were injured, Cristina Balotelli found herself fending off calls from reporters looking for comment from her brother, as if he must have something to say as one of the few high-profile black Italian success stories. That, in itself, suggests how widely Balotelli is marked out for his colour in Italy.

"I said, 'What has my brother got to do with this?"' she says. "We don't have black politicians. He became a symbol of too many things." At times it all becomes too much for the 19-year-old. A week ago in Verona, in a match Inter won thanks to Balotelli's lone goal, he again heard insults and boos. In response, Balotelli mocked the crowd, ironically applauding when he was substituted and by saying in a post-match TV interview that "the fans are more and more sickening". The Italian league's fine followed the next day.

If Inter's subsequent appeal is rejected, then it will be a victory for hooligans. "He just applauded for two seconds," his brother, Corrado, said. "It's crazy." * AP