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The book that best describes the art, thrill and tragedy of the world's most popular sport is Eduardo Galeano's Soccer in the Sun and Shadow. The volume is a playful, yet political, tribute to the game that half of the world loves: 3.2 billion people viewed the World Cup held in South Africa in 2012. Galeano, a well-known Uruguayan leftist, makes the argument that soccer has been a story of working-class and black male players attaining social mobility, and self-expression, through one of the few channels that society made available to them. People who were unknown suddenly became elevated to the status of demi-gods: hundreds of songs have been written mentioning soccer's most formidable players. Equally relevant, however, is that so many luminaries succumb to the worst aspects of their impoverished origins when they retire from the game: several legendary players became drug addicts or drunks who died poor and alone at the end of their lives. Perhaps the racism and classism that permeated their upbringing and their lives inserted a psychic time bomb that would not necessarily be defused by their status and extravagant salaries.
The historian Arnold Toynbee famously remarked, "Civilizations in decline are consistently characterized by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity." In soccer, the contemporary player who most refuses to be regulated is Mario Balotelli. Nicknamed "Super Mario," Balotelli was born in Sicily to poor Ghanaian parents, who put him into foster care from the age of three onwards with an Italian Jewish family. Balotelli now plays on the Italian national team, is one of the first black players to represent Italy, sports a blond Mohawk, and possesses one of European soccer's most volatile, entertaining and exaggerated personalities.
The superstar -- one of the greatest strikers in the world -- has had to deal with numerous instances of racism in Italy; for example, he was pelted with bananas in a Rome bar prior to the European Under-21 Championships in June 2009. As well, before Italy's Euro 2012 semi-final match against Germany, the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport published a cartoon portraying the player as King Kong. The paper eventually apologized when critics made it clear that the image was threatening the paper's reputation.
Prior to Euro Cup 2012, the BBC showed a documentary, Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate, on the racism of many fans in the host countries: Poland and Ukraine. The reporter Chris Rogers spent a month watching soccer games in the two countries and reported on fans jeering players on the other team with phrases like "Jewish whore" and taunting black players with monkey chants. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the body that administers football in Europe, promised to show no tolerance towards racism during the European Cup. The organization was pushed to make this statement because of the fine activist work of numerous anti-racist groups such as the Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) Network.
When asked about potential racism at the Cup, Balotelli responded: "I will not accept racism at all. It's unacceptable. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail, because I will kill them." Balotelli later annihilated the German team, scoring the two most dramatic goals of the tournament in a 2-1 upset over Germany in the semi-final. After the second goal, the player pulled off his jersey, put his hands on his hips and truculently, ironically, stared at the horizon as his teammates mobbed him. The goals propelled Balotelli into the spotlight with many commentators hoping that his heroics would have a positive impact on the struggle against discrimination in his Mediterranean homeland.
The Germany-Italy game ended with a much commented-upon moment: Balotelli walked over to the stands to hug his diminutive Italian Jewish mother and dedicate the two goals to her. This moment of inter-colour concord catalyzed the idealism of many -- however, the challenges to that optimism were also on display at this international competition. The Spanish side decisively defeated the Italians in the final via the former's inventive "tiqui-taca" style of play, which emphasizes incessant passing, fluidity and ball control. The squad was the most dazzling one of Euro Cup 2012 and has been the most inventive of our generation: they deserved the victory -- even if a few of their fans did not. At the end of the tournament, the Spanish team was fined by UEFA for the racist abuse of some of their supporters towards opposition players.
Thomas Ponniah was a Lecturer on Social Studies and Assistant Director of Studies at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He remains an affiliate of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies.
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