There is a subset of football fandom that treats banter — #topbantz, even — as the lifeblood of the game. Good natured ribbing between opposition fans is seen as an absolute necessity to the game, second only to the presence of a ball, a pitch, and twenty-two players. Banter, you see, helps foster genial rivalry and lends meaning to the nature of every sporting duel.
It was in this spirit that Mario Balotelli took to Twitter on Sunday afternoon while watching Manchester United lose 5-3 to newly promoted club Leicester City. Balotelli has already played for a handful of clubs in his short playing career, but past experience at Manchester City and current employment at Liverpool FC means that it's been easy enough to get on board with banter directed at both clubs' biggest rival.
Man utd ... LOL— Mario Balotelli (@FinallyMario) September 21, 2014
An ellipsis and an LOL were enough to trigger a tsunami of racial abuse from many who felt the striker was out of line for finding the Red Devils' predicament amusing. Whether players should be tweeting about rival clubs in the first place is an entirely separate discussion, but it's safe to say that the reaction was exceedingly disproportionate to Balotelli's comment. The vileness of the responses was enough for local law enforcement to begin an investigation.
We can confirm officers are looking into offensive comments made on Twitter about Mario Balotelli earlier today— Merseyside Police (@MerseyPolice) September 21, 2014
There is a precedent for police involvement in football-related racism on social media. In 2010, a Norwich City fan was investigated by police after making racist tweets regarding the club's signing of James Vaughn from Everton. The fan was subsequently banned from Carrow Road for life, a move which is thought to be a first in English football in dealing with racism on social media.
What's unclear is how police investigation and any subsequent charges might affect Balotelli's abusers in terms of football. The Norwich case saw a Norwich fan punished by his own club for abusing his own player; whether Manchester United will act on their fans abusing a rival player remains to be seen, although given the nebulousness of Twitter it seems unlikely.
That it only took a month on Merseyside for Balotelli to experience racial abuse from Premier League fans is quite depressing, but of course this is far from the first time Balotelli has been abused in this manner. There had been hope when the striker moved back to Italy that being home would relieve some of the pressure on him and have a positive effect on his behavioural controversies, but the racial abuse he received from his compatriots meant he never got comfortable at AC Milan.
Balotelli seems to have brushed off this latest incident, but it feels unlikely that it will be the last time he experiences something like this. Continental competition brings with it visits to stadiums where in-game racial abuse occurs far too often. Liverpool were not drawn into a group with CSKA Moscow, who will be playing their next Champions League game at home to an empty stadium due to racist fan behaviour, but they will be making a visit to Madrid, where Real Madrid kicked off this season's continental campaign in front of a partially closed stadium due to racist fan behaviour in May.
In the past, Balotelli has threatened to walk off the pitch should he experience racial abuse during a match, and it speaks volumes that he is able to pre-plan his reaction to such an experience. Balotelli is perfectly entitled to do whatever he sees fit to disengage from abuse, and Liverpool fans — nay, fans of common decency — will hope that it never comes to that, not because it means depriving the club of a striker but because it would mean there had been little progress in the tackling of racism in the sport we love.