Sunday, July 01, 2012

Balotelli e Io, Balotelli and Me

cross-posted from Dagblog

I've spent the last month or so in Rome; our last night in the city happily coincides with the 2012 Euro Cup final, with the hometown Italia Azzuri taking on defending champion Spain. (And that's a happy coincidence, too: a rematch of each team's first game of the tournament.) Naturally, we're going out to watch the match. And just as naturally, I bought a game jersey (from a pile at my neighborhood supermarket). Tonight I'll be wearing Mario Balotelli's number.

It might look funny to the Romani; in fact it certainly will. Balotelli is black, born in Palermo to immigrant parents from Ghana. I am so pale that it's faintly ludicrous, born from generations of Italian-American intermarriage with fairer, blonder spouses. His hair color is closer to mine now that he's bleached his mohawk, but it doesn't really further the resemblance. And of course, neither of us looks "Italian." Our names don't go with our faces.

If you ask some people, of course, Balotelli isn't Italian. Simply because he was born here and grew up speaking Italian as his native tongue, simply because he was adopted as an infant by the Italian parents whose family name he took when he was eighteen and because he became an official Italian citizen as soon as he reached adulthood, that doesn't make him Italian to everyone's satisfaction. For some he can never be Italian, because he's black. And certainly, Balotelli gets more than enough reminding of that.

But that's why I like him best. Because Balotelli stands for all the other things that make a national identity: loyalty, affinity, personal upbringing, rearing. He is Italian, in part, because he chooses to be, and the act of choosing his nation, declaring his loyalty as an adult, makes him more rather than less fully Italian. Balotelli is a volunteer. He wouldn't change if you asked him. If that makes him less "naturally" Italian, Italy has never had any natural, spontaneous national identity. "Italy" has always been a conscious choice and an effort of the will. Being Italian has always meant having to volunteer a little. Ask Garibaldi.

And of course Balotelli's decision wasn't just a choice. It was a recognition of a truth that can't be changed. Balotelli grew up an Italian. He lived an Italian childhood, with Italian experiences. Declaring that he doesn't belong, that he is "really" from some other country where he was not born or raised, does not give Balotelli another history or another childhood. He is who he is. And when he goes to Britain to play for his club team, he's a black Italian in the UK. There's no going back. Balotelli, without trying to, asks his fellow Italians to move forward with their own history, to think about an Italianita' for the global age, not grounded in race or skin color but in something greater: an Italianita' of the heart and the soul.

I don't know who will win the final tonight. I don't know whether Balotelli, who is brilliant but volatile on the pitch, will have a triumph or end up a goat. But I won't wait for my verdict on Balotelli himself, win or lose. E' genio. He's my guy. He's brilliant. Viva Italia, and Viva Balotelli. Balotelli, sono io.

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