During international football competitions like the European Cup, eleven players briefly become their country, for a time, on the pitch. A nation is a difficult thing to grasp: unpalpable, mythic, flighty. Historians might labor away to define the precise contours of a country’s culture and institutions, and even sometimes attempt to delineate its soul, while political leaders try mightily (and persistently fail) to stand as representatives of its ideals. But in a way there is nothing quite so tactile, so real, as the way a team represents a nation: during their time on the pitch, they have in their hands a small sliver of the country’s destiny. And in those miraculous and memorable moments when individual trajectories intersect with a national sporting victory, sometimes biographies and histories seem briefly to meld. At such moments, the players who inhabit the crossroads of sporting and national history –Maradona in 1986, Zidane in 1998 — become icons, even saints.
This charged atmosphere can also mean that the collective of a given country’s team can also become a symbol. This was perhaps most forcefully the case in France in 1998, when the fact that the country had won it’s first World Cup with a team bewildering in it’s jovial diversity (Armenian! Algerian! Guadeloupean! Kanak!) was taken by many as signifying and symbolizing the arrival of a new France. The feeling was short-lived but powerful, indeed energizing. And it suggested one particularly powerful way through which international football competitions can speak to questions about national identity and belonging, and more specifically the place of immigration and immigrants in the nation.
Watching the 2012 European Cup competition, you can increasingly see how histories of immigration have reshaped the world of European football. For a long time, France was relatively unique in the extent to which players with roots outside of Europe played central roles on the national football squad. It’s a tradition that goes back to the early 20th century in France — in the 1930s the Senegalese player Raoul Diagne and the Moroccan Larbi Ben Barek both played on the French national team, for instance, and a string of Algerian players did as early as the 1920s and through the 1950s. Portugal, meanwhile, had the great Mozambican-born Eusebio in the 1960s. The great French generation of Michel Platini, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, included a number of players with African and Caribbean roots. By then, other countries — particularly the Netherlands, which famously included several players of Surinamese background, and England which in the late 1970s incorporated a series of black players largely of Caribbean ancestry — began fielding more diverse teams. But in other countries the process was much slower. Germany, Italy, and Spain in particular continued to field teams with few if any players of non-European background. Perhaps the most startling contrast in this regard came in 2006, when a French team in which 19 of 23 players on the squad had roots in Africa, North Africa, the Caribbean, or the Indian Ocean, in contrast to an Italian team which, with the exception of some Argentine-Italians, had no players with non-European roots.
In the past years this all begun to shift in important ways. The German team in the 2010 World Cup was heralded for it’s multi-ethnic composition — with Ghana (via Boateng), Brazil (via Cacau), Tunisia (via Khedira) and Turkey (via Ozil) all represented. If the numbers were small compared to the French team, it still represented a shift, one brought about through a conscious longer-term policy that sought to expand and diversify training and recruitment in German soccer. Similar changes are visible on other national teams. Switzerland’s team (absent from this Euro) benefited strikingly in South Africa from the contribution of Gelson Fernandes, son of Cape Verde immigrants who scored their goal in their stunning victory over Spain. At the Euros this year The Czech team showcased the talented Thedor Gebre Selassie, son of an Ethiopian doctor. And the player who truly defined Sweden’s exalting performance against France in the final group game in this year’s Euro, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is the child of Croatian and Bosnian parents.
There is obviously no simple explanation for how and why certain international teams include players of immigrant background. At some level, each player’s trajectory is an individual story, one that combines talent, discipline, and luck to bring them to the highest levels of the sport. But there are also larger social and historical forces at work. These involve three inter-related processes. At the broadest level, there is of course the history of migration in each European country. While these histories are — especially in an increasingly integrated Europe — tightly connected, they are also quite diverse. Migration to some countries — most notably France and the U.K. — is shaped by their colonial histories, though both countries also have large migrant populations that are not from former colonies. In places like Belgium and Italy, migration from former colonies (particularly the Congo in the former case and Ethiopia and Somalia in the latter) is a small part of a broader tapestry of migration. And intra-European migration, particularly from Eastern to Western Europe, is also part of the story as it has long been.
But patterns of migration don’t necessary become patterns of sporting participation. For that to happen, there have to be mechanisms for the inclusion of migrants into the networks of training that professionalize young players. To understand how that happens in different countries, you need to understand the different types of professionalization — most importantly the structuring of academies or sport-training tracks in schools. That is something Lindsay Marie Krasnoff explores well in a recent piece contrasting Spanish and French academy systems. Interestingly, though, the Spanish national team remains an outlier in some ways, for there is a striking absence of players of non-European background on the team. Why is this the case? Will it change in the coming years?
In this European Cup, the most important and fascinating player of immigrant background is clearly Mario Balotelli. For the past decades, Italy’s national team has had very few black players, and none ever so prominent as Balotelli. He’s earned a place as the team’s key striker, and his presence has been at the center of polemics and debates around racism at the Euro competition. His story is as fascinating as it is complex. Born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, he had health problems as a child and ultimately was fostered with a wealthier Italian couple. Although the fostering was initially meant to be for a year, Mario ended up staying, leaving behind his Ghanaian name of Barwuah and taking on that of his foster parents, the Balotellis. At 18, he took on Italian citizenship. As the Daily Mail reported in 2010, his relationship with his biological parents became strained and distant. A brilliant player, Balotelli has found vertiginous success on the pitch, coupled with regular appearances in the newspaper for various teenage stunts, and has been recruited to play as one of his national team’s key strikers during this tournament.
Though a number of players intervened into the discussion about how to respond to racist fans during the European Cup, none was more forceful than Balotelli, who announced that he might walk off the pitch if confronted with monkey noises or other forms of racist abuse. As it happened, he was — during the Italy vs. Croatia match — as several hundred fans made monkey noises at him and one threw a rapidly-retrieved (and photographed) banana onto the pitch to taunt him.
He didn’t carry out his threat of leaving the pitch, though the fact that he had emphasized the issue probably helped pressure UEFA to take action after the match. They fined the Croatian Federation 80,000 Euros for the behavior of his fans. Of course that fine can seem rather small, especially when compared to other fines levied by the same body. As The Star reported: “The fine is €20,000 ($25,000) less than the UEFA disciplinary panel ordered Denmark forward Nicklas Bendtner to pay one day earlier for revealing a sponsor’s name on his underpants.”
During the next game, against Ireland, Balotelli scored his first goal of the competition. What happened next generated perhaps one of the most potent and fascinating moments in the tournament: as he turned to celebrate, he began to say something. But his teammates rapidly put their hands over his mouth, muffling and silencing him. The image was unsettling: a goal celebration that was also a bit of a mugging, as if the job of Balotelli’s teammates was to make sure that he scored but didn’t speak afterwards. Most commentators — like those I heard on Belgian television — commended the action, taking the line that given Balotelli’s penchant for controversial statements and behavior, they were doing the young man a favor. But what, precisely, was Balotelli trying to say? The Independent has suggested that — like Samir Nasri who, after scoring against England, had shouted “Ferme ta gueule!” at the camera, presumably responding to a recent criticism in L’Equipe about his lack of scoring — he was going to taunt the Italian journalists who had been critical of his performance in previous games. Then again, maybe he was just going to say something about how awesome he is, which he clearly enjoys doing as well. But there’s another possibility, which is that Balotelli had some words for the racist fans from the previous game who had taunted him. His teammates stifled whatever it was that was about to come out of his mouth.
Balotelli faces seeping racism at home too: in anticipation of the Italy-England match, Italy’s leading sports newspaper, La Gazetta Dello Sporto, published this cartoon, whose racial vocabulary is not that far from that of the Croatian fans.
As Elizabeth Cotignola has recently noted in a provocative piece about the specter of decline threatening Italian football, migration — and a more open approach to migrants in Italian society — may be the key to assuring the future of the sport in the country. If that is true, Balotelli may represent the beginning of a new era in Italian football.
What is striking in the lead-up to the Germany-Italy game is that, no matter which team wins the victory will be the result of a collective effort by a group that brings together diverse histories. If the Italian teams wins, there is a good chance it will be thanks to the alliance of the veteran Andrea Pirlo with Mario Balotelli. Though Balotelli failed to score in open play, he threatened England on several occasions. Pirlo, meanwhile, directed the team effectively, and topped the evening off with a cheeky and brilliant panenka during the penalty kick shoot-out. The experience of the French team in this tournament is testament, once again, to what can happen when a team of very talented players lacks a figure who centers and directs the action of the team — the way Zidane did in 2006, for instance. But with Pirlo and other experienced players behind him, Balotelli has the opportunity on Thursday to earn a place in the pantheon of Italian football.
Balotelli has now scored twice, once against Ireland and once scoring the first penalty against England. Will he do so again against Germany? And if so, what will that mean for him, and for Italy?