Italian press depiction of Mario Balotelli as King Kong is naïve
In its build up to last Sunday’s Euro 2012 quarter final between Italy and England, the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport dedicated that day’s cartoon to national team striker Mario Balotelli, depicting him as King Kong mounting Big Ben, rather than the Empire State building, from where he swatted away footballs fired in by the English.
That Mario is not renowned for his defensive tracking-back made the gag senseless, at best. That he is black and King Kong an oversized gorilla threatening civilisation rendered it distasteful, for some at least. Monday’s edition saw an apology or, more specifically, an apology for any offence caused. A non-apology apology, in fact. We’ve done nothing wrong, but are sorry if you were offended, sorry if you misunderstood.
The paper did concede ‘that it’s not among the best work of our talented cartoonist…poor Marini. In current times and with these stadiums’, which were presumably references to Poland and Ukraine rather than Italy’s, ‘more prudence and good taste than ever are required because everything, absolutely everything, can be misinterpreted’. True enough, but is there anything to misinterpret in the depiction of a black Italian footballer as an oversized gorilla?
Wordy catenaccio, La Gazzetta’s defence stood firm: ‘This paper has always fought any form of racism in the stadiums and has always denounced the “boos” directed at Balotelli, as an unacceptable form of incivility. To think that some sick mind might have wanted to insinuate, on our pages, the link with King Kong, the big black monkey, more than offensive it is frankly twisted and absurd’. In fact, how could anybody?
In 2009 Juventus fans chanted ‘There are no black Italians’, during Inter’s visit to Turin, after which the Under-21 manager, Pierluigi Casiraghi, reflected: ‘It’s his personality that’s irritating, it’s not racism… He has a big character but sometimes exaggerates.’ In the same year, on international duty in Rome, Balotelli was insulted in a bar and bananas thrown at him. He got more against Croatia in Euro 2012. But as then national team coach Marcello Lippi asserted, to 400 high-school students, ‘cases of racism in football don’t exist in Italy’.
One wonders if ‘King Kong’ sees it quite the same way? Just how can the unquestionable racism that Balotelli has experienced be his responsibility? As Il Venerdì di Repubblica asked on its cover featuring Mario, in June 2009: ‘Is it not that you’re racist and you don’t know it?’
For anybody who experienced English football in the 1970s and 1980s, the racist abuse, the chants, the bananas and the passing of the buck onto the game and the player are all too familiar and the parallels between Dave Hill’s analysis of what constituted character in English football in that period (Out of His Skin) and Italy today, strikingly evident:
Consider the politics of the field of play. Rule One: don’t retaliate when opponents bait you. The ref will send you off, not the other guy. Rule Two: don’t lose your rag with the crowd when they shower you in spit as you back away to take a corner kick, when they goad you with monkey chants and throw bananas on the pitch just to let you know that they think you are no better than an ape…. Break any of these rules and they say you’ve got a temperament problem.
Great attention surrounded the first black England international Viv Anderson, in 1978, after which roughly one in four England debutantes have been black. While it would be misleading to suggest that racism no longer exists in English football, educational programmes, such as the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign, in conjunction with the FA and club community schemes have assisted black footballers to become powerful forces in the campaign for racial equality. Without this backing, as Dave Hill observed:
What else could they do? They were far too isolated to speak out against it… The only course of resistance available to them was to show by their deeds that they would not be driven out of football, just as their families would not be driven out of Britain by the attentions of Fascist organisations such as the National Front. They did so with fire and fortitude and, though unrecognised at the time, this has proved enormously important.
Without adequate political and sporting will, there is only so much that even highly talented sportsmen, with huge exposure, like Balotelli, can achieve. Mario certainly has the talent and the temperament needed to lead the campaign. He might not like the role, he certainly didn’t ask for it, but he’s lumbered with it, and its not one for a wallflower.
So next time you think that comparing him to King Kong isn’t racist La Gazzetta, perhaps run it by the editorial committee once more? Even better, ask Mario and let us know what he thinks.Tagged in: euro 2012, football, Italy, Mario Balotelli, racism, racism football
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