One of the remarkable things about a field of play is how it can exist as both crowded and spacious at any given time. Every apparent angle can feel so obscured, so hotly contested. But, in reality, all that's needed is a modified perspective to see the expanse of green all around.
As football fans, we most often think of this dichotomy in terms of a shimmy and a shake breaking a deadlock open into a footrace for glory. Sometimes, though, we allow it to accommodate more than a ball and 23 bodies. At times it is for things we're not in the mood for, otherwise why would be spending our day off with this inconsequential little game? Hillsborough. Heysel. West Germany versus East Germany. Poverty. Religion. Race. A lot fits into that space.
It's there that a guy like Mario Balotelli can come to mean so much. Even when he's just another dizzy, overpaid 20-something being propped up by forces that are way beyond his control for an ability that will cure no diseases, nor answer any existential questions. Pro footballer one moment, visceral conduit for a difficult discussion the next.
Just like the opposing duality of a man who celebrates goals by sullenly eyeing daggers at all around, A.C. Milan's decision to insert a code of conduct into Balotelli's contract exists as both an understandable bit of man management and an expression of institutional racism. Space, you see.
Gazzetta dello Sport broke the story that we've all had time to read by now. In order to play for his boyhood club, Balotelli will stop smoking and drinking up in the club, will make it to practice on time, will tone down his hair and dress, and will not bring Milan's good name into disrepute on the social medias.
Now, it'd take a righteous sort indeed to take too much issue with a corporate policy mandating an employee show up to work sober and on time, while also suppressing the urge to tweet things that might tarnish the company's image. In exchange for fame and millions in the bank, there are very few fans who would struggle to abide by such a policy. Further, the player and his advisers have shared some of the agency here by agreeing to these stipulations. But if the reading of this situation stops there, it does so in ignorance of the greater plight at play.
Racism in football is something that surpasses Super Mario the professional footballer agreeing to a contract with AC Milan the professional football club. Its a reality that provides the explicit context filling the spaces between Balotelli's moments of brilliance with a ball at his feet. It is also a context that enjoys Milan's institutional complicity.
Consider the following:
- No other AC Milan player has such an amendment in his contract. Not even the ones who party, and smoke, and roll up fashionably late to practice, while exhibiting a questionable handle with the cutting edge of couture.
- Italian football as a whole, and AC Milan specifically, are strife with racism.
- Super Mario has not only been subjected to racism throughout his career, he's been subjected to it while wearing AC Milan colors, and at the hands of those running the club, itself.
- Speaking of those running the club, Silvio Berlusconi is bluntly racist.
- Mario Balotelli has Ghanaian blood flowing in those veins. Blood which gave him naturally thick, kinky hair. Hair that can't even express itself without racist underpinnings. Racist underpinnings that have gotten so intrinsic to Italian fooball that when Adriano Galliani tells Balotelli--and Balotelli alone--that he has to ensure his hairstyle comes off a bit more Dapper Dan and a little less Thursday, the story lives as Mario Balotelli: Last Last Chance Saloon.
One would have to willfully ignore a very recent, very publicized history here to not include the contextual tidbits when deciding on the veracity of this good behavior clause. Not that it would be hard to do. The man signed the contract with this clause in it, after all. And just a certain combination of keywords is what stands between you and an avalanche of google results that are replete with timelines and juicy in the know stories about Balotelli's numbskulled transgressions. Saturday morning, pregame show, and a perusal of the overnight stories: Can't take you anywhere, Mario. You're too much for a circus to handle, what are we going to do with you?
The good news is that if the full story surrounding Mario Balotelli gets too thick, and congested, and difficult to deal with, one can simply modify their perspective to find the space to get comfortable in, again. After all, few balms are as fast acting as the game when it comes to cutting out pesky, real world noise that wasn't our idea to begin with.
At a certain point, though, if the footballing world is going to crumble the foundations of the racist institutions and processes implicating us all, we're going to need to find a solution. We'll need that shimmy and shake that breaks the deadlock open into shared glory. Bill Shankly seemed to think that the potential to do so was in us. As for Mario Balotelli? Well, he can't make it any plainer, can he?
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