He’s one 19 years old and arguably one of the biggest young talents in European soccer for years. Despite his young age, he just won the Italian Championship yesterday and the Italian Cup a little more than a week ago with his team Inter Milan, with which he will also take part in the Champions League final, the Olympus of club soccer, this Saturday.
Can there be a happier young man than Mario Balotelli?
There certainly can be, as the Balotelli story is far from being a happy one.
Born in Palermo as son of Ghanaian immigrants he was soon entrusted to the Italian family Balotelli and took over their family name. Throughout his youth he was showing his soccer talent and after he received his Italian citizenship in 2008 (he had to wait until his 18th birthday for legal reasons), he also started playing for the Italian Under 21 (U-21) National Team.
However what looks like a perfect career buildup gained a dynamic over the last few months that is alarming. Looking back it is tough to say how it was initiated, but it seems like the mixture of a player with dark skin putting on a great performance, the same player having a very aggressive and polarizing personality and racist soccer fans in Italy does not blend perfectly.
While Balotelli celebrated his goals and successes rather extrovert, he quickly build up an opposition among fans from the other teams. Balotelli became the target of their aggression, as stadium visitors all over the country started to attack him with racist chants and shouts. It does not matter what was the chicken and what was the egg, result was that Balotelli was provoked in every single game he played and maybe due to his young age, his personality or his experiences he could not refrain from reacting.
Every gesture or negative comment towards other teams, players or fans created more opposition, even fans from his own team started whistling when he was fielded by coach Mourinho. The climax so far was the Champions League semi final against Barcelona at home stadium San Siro. Inter played one of their best matches in years, beating the favorite 3-1 and the whole stadium was in mood for celebration when Balotelli was brought on in the 75th minute. After a few good actions, he played the first bad pass and was booed by Inter fans for the rest of the game. Just imagine the situation: Your team is close to a huge triumph, spectators have tears of joy in their eyes, you come in and as if they had waited for it they start booing and whistling. When the match was over and all of his team mates were celebrating the breakthrough victory, Balotelli took of his jersey, threw it away and left immediately into the dressing room.
A few minutes later he was found in an argument that was coming close to a fight with his team mate Marco Materazzi – himself known for his aggressiveness (reminder: he was the one that provoked Zinedine Zidan into the legendary headbutt at the Wold Cup Final 2006). He was also attacked by some Inter supporters that night. One day later some supporters stated on the internet: “Ciao Mario. We were whistling at you as you were jogging on the pitch in your typical, arrogant way while ten other players were spitting blood. You do not exist for us any longer.”
While elsewhere the club or the soccer association would try to protect a player from those attacks and try to fight any kind of racism, it seems like in Balotelli’s case those that oppose him are never punished. By the way: Balotelli was banned from the team after the Barcelona match and only allowed to come back after he apologized. The people that started the racist attacks and chants against Balotelli were not fined heavily.
Balotelli is sick of it. It is obvious he wants to leave not only Inter – the full name of the club ironically is “Football Club Internazionale Milano” (International Soccer Club of Milan) – but his native country of Italy.
The league will lose one of it’s greatest talents, a super star in the making, just because no one speaks up to protect Balotelli, just because everybody accepts the attacks against him.
I think there are two things to pick up from this story:
1) Discrimination is bad. Really.
What hopefully sounds like a no brainer to all of you not only has an ethical, but also an economical background: Losing someone who was discriminated for being perceived as different by definition means losing ideas, approaches and views that are different from the rest of the group. In many cases, discrimination is not linked to performance, but to other, emotional factors instead. Balotelli is a great player, he is discriminated purely for emotional reasons. The questions, and I’ve raised it before when talking about diversity, is: Can an organization cope with someone who is different from the rest? If not it accepts to constantly under perform.
2) Protect your young talents
Balotelli is no nun. He’s aggressive, kind of rebellious. There’s a technical term for this kind of behavior: He is … young.
With a little bit more experience maybe in some cases he would have done less of provocation and his interviews would have been a bit more streamlined. But he does not have this experience yet. He’s 19 years old, he feels that he has better capabilities than most of the older people surrounding him and also feels like it wasn’t appreciated yet. A lack of patience leads to a “in your face” type of behavior.
In the world of sports there are innumerable examples for this. Just look at my play maker series: A young Maradona, a young Matthäus, etc. – all of them were known to be more aggressive than it was expected from a young man who still had to find his place in the organization.
I’m sure you know examples from your organization for this as well. Young, aggressive, talented newbies clash with the established and slower ones that better know the tricks and make it a tough life for the young guys.
What I blame Inter and also the Italian soccer federation for is that no one came to protect Balotelli. The racist attacks against Balotelli were only condemned halfheartedly and those that fought and discriminated Balotelli were not heavily punished. They declared open season on him. In a situation like this, not acting is joining in into the discrimination.
Young people will make mistakes. We all did (and still do…). Make sure you think that’s okay. Support them. There is no better way to create loyalty. If you don’t protect them, you will lose them.
Inter and Italian soccer did not fight discrimination. They did not protect their young talented newcomer. The damage is done. Most probably they will lose him after this season for a transfer fee that does by no means reflect his market value.
It could have been avoided, as there is a good thing about young people: Most of them are able to forgive. Balotelli is an example for building bridges: Even under these circumstances, he still performs good and fights every time he enters the pitch. In the penultimate match of the season he was showing his class by scoring the crucial 4th Inter goal in a 4-3 victory against Chievo – the goal that in the end made Inter champions.