Home > Culture, Sports > Euro 2012 and the (Constant Re-)Making of Mario Balotelli

Euro 2012 and the (Constant Re-)Making of Mario Balotelli

With the final of the 2012 European Football Championship now set, footie fans the world over can take a step back before the title game between defending Euro and World championship holders Spain and surprising Italy and consider the wider trends and impacts of the tournament.

Held in Eastern Europe for the first time, the tournament in Poland and Ukraine was baptized by the fire of persistent racism and violence as well as by lacklustre showings by the host nations (neither made the knockout round, admittedly a difficult task in this most tightly-packed of international tournaments). Several offensive talents made threatening noises about becoming the event’s breakout star: Russia and CKSA Moscow attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev scored twice in his team’s opening 4-1 drubbing of the Czech Republic and added another in a draw with Poland, but his virtuosity was diminished by his side’s inability to advance from their group; Marko Mandzukic of Croatia matched both his goal total and his advancement failure; Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the goal of the tournament in a win over France, but the Swedes were knocked out at the group stage as well; Portuguese gadfly superstar Cristiano Ronaldo made headlines by leading his team to the semis in style but then becoming a bystander in a penalty shootout defeat to Spain. Whenever one of European football’s outsized talents and personalities seemed poised to capture the rapt attention of the watching world, they simply fell away instead at the critical moment.

That’s a yellow card… for being intimidatingly fit.

But then, as he so often has in his short but already-notable career, Italian striker and all-around sports time-bomb Mario Balotelli stepped up and powerfully snatched the spotlight. His two commanding goals in his country’s semifinal victory against a German squad that had looked impressive (if not quite dominant) thus far in the tournament may turn out to be the signature performance of Euro 2012, whether Italy succeeds in dethroning the fading Spanish or not in the final.

But Balotelli’s ascension to prominence on the international level that is football’s grandest stage just reasserts how fascinating, contradictory, and thoroughly modern a figure he is, especially in a sport that nourishes itself so deeply on traditional culture. Super Mario, as he has been nicknamed, is a controversial figure even by the low threshold that our cannibalistic, hyper-aware contemporary culture maintains for that term. A brief perusal of the Personality and Reputation sub-heading on his Wikipedia page makes for quite an entertaining read. Even by the standards of football eccentricity, he’s quite a character, donating thousands of pounds left and right, setting off fireworks in his home, sword-fighting in restaurants with rolling pins, bombing out of major club sides, and commenting on his own complex fame with a post-goal celebratory t-shirt that quixotically read, “Why Always Me?“.

Surprisingly, the British press didn’t dust off too many old Axis jokes for this game…

There’s a Derridean theory paper or two to be penned on that iconic statement of Balotelli’s alone, mixing as it does confrontation and victimhood, confidence and doubt, overweening power and inescapable powerlessness. Super Mario, both an explosive enigma and a steely champion, is différance personified and given sublime footballing technique; his meanings are forever deferred, even as ball after ball leaves his foot and hits the back of the net like so many signifiers. Little wonder that the internet’s pre-eminent salon of sports-writing intellectualism, The Classical, ran a regular analytical feature called This Week in Mario Balotelli during the Premier League season (a season that recently ended with Balotelli setting up Manchester City teammate Sergio Aguero’s dramatic title-winning goal).

Outside of this, of course, it’s hard to understate how Mario Balotelli, a child of poverty-stricken Ghanian immigrants to Sicily who was taken into foster care by full-blooded Italians, represents a new and complicated vision of modern multiracial Europe. The racially-tinged negative reactions that dog him typify a continental order that is still heaving and breaking its ephemeral stitches much more fundamentally than a debt default or two ever could. Even in Italy, where he is surely a newly-minted national hero after his performances against the Germans, there must be some trepidation about Balotelli’s unsettling identity, and about what it means for a monolithic society and culture with a long and rich history of inward focus and shut gates. If a black man, the son of African immigrants, can become a homegrown star of calcio, then what other multicultural changes could be in store on the Italian peninsula and in Europe as a whole? For a man most famous for following a statement goal with a question worn on his chest, Mario Balotelli embodies such questions in the bright spotlight of the world’s most popular sport.

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Categories: Culture, Sports
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