Why Balotelli remains an outsider in Italy - even in his own city

Mario Balotelli Brescia
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The striker was racially abused in Verona on November 3 yet some of his own club's fans turned on him before the president labelled him "fragile"

Six years ago, Mario Balotelli was asked in an interview with Sports Illustrated what it was like "to be black and Italian".

"It's amazing," the striker enthused. "And now there are a lot more coming, so I'm not alone anymore."

There are indeed more Italians of colour in 2019. Whether they feel it is "amazing" in the current political climate is open to debate.

One also wonders if Balotelli no longer feels alone. Presently, he appears as isolated as he has ever been, not just in his own country, but his own hometown.

When Balotelli's summer transfer to Brescia was completed, he took to Instagram to declare, "Finally, I'm returning to MY CITY."

Balotelli was born in Palermo in 1990 to Ghanaian parents but placed in foster care at the age of one and ultimately raised in Brescia by Francesco and Silvia Balotelli.

He grew up in a neighbourhood in which he never experienced any racism. It was only when he ventured outside his beloved Brescia that sometimes "stupid people said stupid things".

Sadly, nothing has changed in that regard. The only difference is that now even some Bresciani are saying stupid things about Balotelli.

That the forward was subjected to monkey chants by a small but audible group of Verona fans during a game at the Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on November 3 was sadly unsurprising. Balotelli has been racially abused by opposition fans on numerous occasions throughout his career, in Italy and abroad.

What made this episode particularly depressing, though, was the reaction of some of his 'own people'.

Just two days after the match, a prominent Verona ultra conducted an interview with Radio Cafe which was shocking even by Italian football's low standards on racial discourse.

As well as repeatedly referring to Balotelli as a "negro" and insisting that he will never be considered "completely Italian" because of his heritage, Luca Castellini claimed that the racial abuse was all in the player's head.

Mario Balotelli racism PS

By way of a response, Brescia ultras then issued a statement of their own, condemning not only Castellini – but also Balotelli, whom they accused of "arrogance".

For them, the victim here wasn't Balotelli but the common ultra, whom they believe is being unfairly targeted by the authorities. Essentially, there was more support among Brescia's hardcore fans for Castellini than Balotelli.

The situation has only worsened since then.

After Balotelli had been sent home from training by new coach Fabio Grosso for a perceived lack of effort ahead of last weekend's trip to Roma, Brescia president Massimo Cellino kicked off another race row by describing Balotelli's demeanour as "nero" ('black') and explaining that the 29-year-old was "working to lighten himself".

The club attempted to portray the comments as "a joke", while Cellino doubled down by saying he wouldn't have signed the former AC Milan star if he'd known "he were so fragile".

Cellino concluded by saying that "Balotelli hasn't smiled since Verona" yet, staggeringly, didn't seem to ask himself why. The notion that the events of November 3 may still be bothering Balotelli didn't appear to cross his mind.

In Italy, people often claim that they don't dislike Balotelli because of the colour of his skin; but because of his 'sulky' demeanour or 'combustible' character.

Granted, he has a history of ill-discipline, which has created problems for him throughout his career.

Patrick Vieira worked with Balotelli at Nice last year and admitted that sometimes he wanted to "just slam him up against the wall or leave him hanging by his collar on the coat rack", while Didier Drogba felt compelled to give his fellow forward some advice ahead of his January move to Marseille.

Even Roberto Mancini, who treats Balotelli like a son, very nearly came to blows with the forward during their time together at Manchester City.

Yet what many seem to overlook is the cumulative effect years of personal attacks have had on Balotelli.

“I am not a robot, nor an epidemic or even an idiot," he wrote on Instagram last year. "Many times I don’t reply, to avoid problems and unnecessary tension, but I hear and see it all and it accumulates and I get fed up too."

All Balotelli has ever wanted was to be accepted. When he was finally able to secure citizenship upon turning 18, he declared, "I feel Italian. I am Italian. I will represent Italy always."

And yet he admitted last year that he might not accept an Azzurri recall even if one was forthcoming.

Mario Balotelli racism PS

He said: “Have you ever thought that, and it might never happen, but one day you could need me and I’d be ready the same way I have been for the last three years, but hearing some of you insulting, denigrating and underestimating me over the years, I might be tired emotionally and therefore refuse to go?

“I just ask that you respect me as much as I respect Italy and then we’ll be fine. I don’t expect to be mollycoddled or considered a phenomenon, but I guarantee that you could only get the best out of me with respect, because I am doing nothing to warrant this disrespect."

Or the incessant racial abuse. Yet nothing is done. Ever. Just the usual talk followed by the same inaction.

Balotelli was particularly upset by what unfolded in Verona earlier this month because his daughter Pia was watching on television: "That made it hurt three times as much. It’s also happened to her before and you cannot insult a child saying words like that. We adults have to set the standard and show how to be civil."

Kevin-Prince Boateng has been banging that drum ever since he walked off the field after being racially abused during a friendly game between AC Milan and Pro Patria six years ago.

When he saw what happened to Balotelli in Verona, he not only pledged to set up his own task force to tackle racism, he also tried admirably to hammer home the point that, "Those that have never been scarred by it can never really understand it. Or know what it feels like."

What really grates, though, is that many people within the Italian footballing community are not even trying to understand what it feels like. Or why Balotelli behaves as he does sometimes. Or why his smile so regularly disappears.

He has been included in the Brescia squad for Saturday's meeting with Atalanta at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti. If he plays, we should find out if Balotelli is still alone.

Or if he remains an outsider – even in his own city.

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