Italian football – and Italian society in general – still has a very long way to go when it comes to eradicating racism. However, spreading lies and leaping to conclusions will definitely not help the situation. Mario Balotelli burst into tears during a game and non-Italian media assumed it was because of racist abuse without knowing any of the facts. How quickly this falsehood spread was disconcerting.
We all know stories spread like wildfire on the Internet and in the age of Twitter completely made-up or twisted tales can reach television news programmes with very little filter. I was just finishing up working on the Napoli-Milan match when I saw ‘Balotelli’ was trending on Twitter in the UK. I clicked on the topic, expecting to see something about the game or people commiserating with the much-loved maverick over his tearful reaction to the substitution. Instead I found myself reading page upon page of comments asking for UEFA to ban Italian clubs and even for all black players around the world to go on strike because racist abuse had been so bad that it pushed SuperMario to break down in tears. I was speechless, which is more than can be said for those thousands who declared Serie A should be shut down on the basis of a completely false story.
I don’t know where the rumour started, perhaps from a Vine account or a misguided journalist who wasn’t at the game, but it seemed incredibly difficult to stop. I tried via my Twitter account, as did our official Football Italia feed, but everyone was painfully eager to believe the worst. Evidence and context were apparently irrelevant, for Balotelli broke down and therefore it HAD to be racist abuse. The fact Clarence Seedorf didn't mention racism in several interviews afterwards was insufficient to change their minds. Abuse has only ever fired him up to do better and shut the critics up, not to emotionally collapse.
This has been a tough week for Mario. A bitter legal battle with his ex-girlfriend finally came to the DNA tests proving he is the father of a little girl, Pia, who was born in December 2012. He has avoided meeting her until this point as he wanted to be sure he was her Dad before making an emotional connection, as much for her own good as his. “I know what it’s like to be a child and suddenly people leave,” said the man who was adopted by the Balotelli family in Brescia and was estranged from his biological family until relatively recently. Pia and her mother Raffaella Fico live in Naples. Milan were playing at the San Paolo. It’s very likely he had something prepared as a dedication to his newly-discovered daughter if he was to score a goal that night, in her home city. When he was substituted just moments after missing an open goal and with his team losing, the disappointment flooded over him. It’s entirely understandable and I wanted to climb into the television to give him a much-needed cuddle.
This isn’t the first time Balotelli has wept during a football event. He cried when embraced by his mother after scoring a brace against Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-final. He then shed tears at the final whistle of that heavy Final defeat to Spain. Perhaps the more repressed nations are unaccustomed to seeing football players cry at emotional moments, but that is the sheer passion this sport invokes in people, both on and off the pitch. It’s not even unheard of in England, where Paul Gascoigne couldn’t hold back the emotion when learning he’d be suspended for the 1990 World Cup Final (if his team would’ve got there).
How often do supporters phone in to radio stations to complain their highly-paid players are mercenaries who don’t care about the team? Balotelli proved how much he truly cares for Milan and was angry at himself for not being able to help the team. It is to be embraced, not vilified.
Another video of tears went viral last week, as Hernanes wept in his car while saluting Lazio fans for the last time. He knew it was the final occasion before his move to Inter, but the supporters did not. The Brazilian was consoled in tender fashion by the ultras – the same ultras we so often see depicted as vicious brutes who want to beat up their own players. The video usually cut out before one telling moment, which saw the fan who embraced him break away because he too was crying.
Don’t underestimate the power of sport to move the emotions in fans or players. And don’t leap to conclusions.