Soccer-Euro-Two Super Marios bring joy, hope to Italy

Fri Jun 29, 2012 4:31pm BST

* Balotelli and Monti are Italian heroes

* Victories seen as revenge on Germany over debt crisis

* Balotelli success may help the fight against racism in Italy

By Barry Moody

ROME, June 29 (Reuters) - Italy revelled on Friday in the successes of its two "Super Marios", one on the soccer field and the other at a European summit - both seen as taking sweet revenge on inflexible euro zone paymaster Germany.

Italy's 2-1 victory over Germany in the Euro 2012 semi final, spearheaded by forward Mario Balotelli, unleashed hours of ecstatic celebration on the streets of the country on Thursday night and a wave of joyous newspaper headlines, many gloating against Germany.

It was widely paired with Prime Minister Mario Monti's success at the Brussels summit, where he pushed German Chancellor Angela Merkel into dropping objections against the use of European bailout funds to contain the borrowing costs of stricken euro zone countries Italy and Spain.

The unexpected victory against Germany was seen as far more significant than merely sealing the rebirth of Italy's soccer team after a disastrous 2010 World Cup, even raising hopes that Balotelli's new status as an Italian hero would help reduce the blatant racism from which he has suffered all his life.

The victory was clearly sweeter because Germany was the victim. "Germany goes home and only the presumed weak nations of the euro zone remain on the field," said Rome's Il Messaggero newspaper.

"They might be the bosses of Europe, but not in football. In football we are the Germans," said the respected Corriere della Sera.

"It would be a mistake to consider Italy-Germany as if it was just a football match. Football is also economy, also politics," said the paper's sports writer Aldo Cazzullo.

Two newspapers close to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi headlined their front pages with obscene attacks on Merkel. Il Giornale, owned by Berlusconi's brother, said the final against Spain "Is the sporting revenge of the Mediterranean countries, those so humiliated by the little teachers of rigour who want to give us lessons in morality."

Italian sentiments were shared in Greece, where Merkel is widely hated for imposing the harsh austerity that has caused deep economic suffering. "They bankrupted her," said the Sports Day newspaper. "We are all Italians," said Goal News.

HOPE AGAINST RACISM

There was also cautious hope that Balotelli's exploits would have a powerful impact in reducing deep racism in Italy, of which he has been one of the most prominent victims.

Balotelli left Inter Milan for Manchester City in 2010 and one motivation was believed to have been the blatant racism he suffered, particularly from Juventus fans.

The 21-year-old striker was born to Ghanaian parents in Sicily and then adopted by Italians, growing up in the city of Brescia - a stronghold of the xenophobic Northern League party.

He suffered repeated racism during his youth and like other children of immigrants had to wait until he was 18 to go through a complex and difficult bureaucratic process to win Italian citizenship.

The leading newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport had to issue an apology when it published a cartoon on Sunday depicting Balotelli as King Kong, swatting away footballs from the top of London's Big Ben.

On Friday, it wrote in a front page editorial, "A star is born," adding that Balotelli was "the symbol of the new Italy. Super Mario Balotelli, the kid of dreams."

Simon Martin, a historian of Italian soccer, said Balotelli "has made an initial difference, but obviously it is a long process. I don't think it will make an enormous difference overnight."

Martin, a lecturer at the American University of Rome, says Italy is in the same situation with racism in football as England was in the 1970s, where similar banana throwing and monkey chants were rife.

"It needs pioneers but he has more potential influence than possibly anybody in the early days in England because he is so damned good," Martin told Reuters.

BALOTELLI INFLUENCE

Carlo Melegari, director of the Italian immigration research organisation Cestim, agreed that Balotelli would have an impact but that progress would take time.

"He will have an impact of course. Anything which underlines the quality of a person independently of the colour of their skin will obviously have repercussions in the general climate of accepting people who represent a minority," he told Reuters.

"It is not something that can be measured in a short period but it will certainly take away the argument from those who believe the colour of a person's skin is an indication of lower worth. In this case a xenophobe or racist will have to simply keep their mouths shut," he said.

The most immediate effect may be to boost a major campaign in Italy to change the law so that immigrants' children who are born in the country will automatically acquire citizenship instead of waiting until they are 18.

"Looking at Mario is a bit like looking at all the kids of colour who go to our nurseries, elementary and secondary schools, to swimming, basketball, and ask only to be legally Italian," said Maurizio Crosetti in La Repubblica daily.

"Perhaps from today it will be a bit less difficult for them. They will try proudly to be Balotelli." (Editing by Justin Palmer)