Mario Balotelli is an Italian footballer who may soon become a Liverpool player. He has long been one of my favorite players, and I can’t help but think that the way his reputation in Europe is shaped by race. (Balotelli has been the victim of horrific racist chants throughout his career, but I also think institutional racism shapes media coverage and popular opinion, as pointed out here and elsewhere.)
Balotelli is certainly an unusual footballer: Once, while signing an autograph for a child, Balotelli learned the kid was being bullied, and then drove across town to confront the bully and discuss the matter with the school principal. And he is famed for his generosity, although this is often portrayed popularly as an inability to handle his money well.
He also has a reputation for volatility and immaturity, and is often criticized for getting in fights with teammates. He once threw a dart at a younger player. You hear a lot that Balotelli is crazy and/or lazy. You hear that he stays out late.
Now, I think some of Balotelli’s professional behavior has been poor, and I’m not here to defend it. But look at the way we treat white players:
Liverpool’s Robbie Fowler once PRETENDED TO SNORT THE WHITE POWDER OF THE TOUCH LINE after scoring a goal, in reference to his cocaine use.
Craig Bellamy drunkenly beat a teammate with a golf club.
Peter Beagrie once drunkenly stole someone’s motorbike and drove it through a hotel’s plate glass window.
Point being, in all the cases above (and many, many, many more) the offenses were seen as youthful indiscretions, or as hilarious examples of Boys being Boys.
Fowler is now a coach; Beagrie is now a well-respected commentator; and Bellamy is still playing. You rarely hear about his on- and off-field indiscretions, even though they’re probably more numerous than Balotelli’s. Meanwhile, Balotelli makes the news (and gets fined $200,000) for eating curry.
Those of you who follow football will begin to hear a lot about Balotelli if he returns to play in England. You will hear about how he cried after being substituted (although you might not hear that he cried because he had to sit on the bench while racist chants rang through the stadium). You will hear about how he is “wild” and “unpredictable” and “lazy.”
But watch him play. Watch how good and smart and creative he can be, how he can find paths to goal that make people call him lazy (they called Messi lazy, too, remember) when really he is just waiting, like the chess master who sees four moves ahead. Watch him off the ball, moving to reshape the opposition’s defense.
And then watch him score, turn around unsmiling, and lift his shirt to ask the immense and complicated question.