Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
Italian forward Mario Balotelli celebrates after scoring the second goal during Italy's semifinal matchup with Germany in the Euro 2012 soccer championships in Warsaw, June 28. Italy went on to lose in the finals to Spain, but Balotelli has been hailed as a national hero, spurring debate over what constitutes Italian-ness.
The Euro 2012 soccer championship ended last weekend with Spain's defeat of Italy. But many sportswriters singled out the second-place team as the tournament's unexpected surprise.
The star of Team Italy is the Sicilian-born son of Ghanaian immigrants, raised by an Italian adoptive family — and now Mario Balotelli is changing the notion itself of what constitutes Italian-ness.
After Balotelli scored two spectacular goals in the semifinal match against Germany in Warsaw, Italians all over the world exploded in joy, and a new national hero was born.
As the triumphant striker approached the stands, he gave this championship its iconic photo off the pitch — the 6-foot-2-inch black Italian Mario hugging his petite white Italian mother, Sylvia.
The sight of his mother's hand caressing the Mohawk-topped head sent a powerful message in a society where la mamma still plays a crucial role and where immigrants are most often treated as second-class.
And when Balotelli ripped off his T-shirt, proudly showing off his statuesque physique, it was as if to say, "I'm black, I'm Italian and I am here to stay."
Balotelli is Italian-born and speaks with a broad northern accent. Yet, until only days before Italy's victory over Germany, he had been the brunt of racist epithets on and off the playing field: Soccer fans in Turin had chanted "There's no such thing as a black Italian," and he was often greeted with monkey imitations and bananas thrown at him.
Could some of those fans now celebrating Balotelli have been the same who had long taunted him with racist slurs?
With the mass influx of immigrants over the past two decades, racism in Italy — unconscious as well as conscious — has soared.
Earlier during the Euro tournament, before the Italy-England match, the main Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport carried a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong climbing Big Ben. Faced with protests, the paper apologized to anyone who might have taken offense, saying that it wasn't their cartoonist's "best product" and that "in these times we need a bit more moderation, caution and good taste." But it did not seem to grasp that the cartoon itself was deeply insulting.
Following a team visit to Auschwitz before the championship, Balotelli told teammates his mother is Jewish and the daughter of Holocaust survivors. When word got out, a neo-Nazi Website posted that Balotelli is "black and Jewish and should play for Israel not Italy."
Immigrants make up nearly 7 percent of Italy's population. But many native-born Italians do not welcome them, and this suspicion toward foreigners is reflected in one the West's most restrictive citizenship laws.
Even children born in Italy are not guaranteed citizenship. Balotelli himself was not allowed to become a citizen until he turned 18. There are more than half a million children like him, born and raised in Italy and speaking Italian as a first language. But they're not citizens because their parents are foreign.
Italy is also the most rapidly aging society in the West: Its very low birth rate has started to rise only thanks to immigrants.
The future of Italy could depend on those President Giorgio Napolitano has called "the new Italians." He has urged a change in legislation that would recognize children born here as Italian citizens.
And many New Italians now hope the soccer player's success on the playing field will finally lead to a "Balotelli citizenship law."