On May 3, 2014, before the kick-off of the Italian Cup Final between ACF Fiorentina and SSC Napoli at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, a substantial number of the 60,000 fans present drowned out the Italian national anthem with a deluge of boos and whistling. Yet while calcio offers this almost annual spectacle of crowds jeering the anthem, it also provides the most dramatic displays of national sentiment: When Italy last won the World Cup in July 2006, over a million ecstatic flag-draped fans squeezed into Rome’s ancient Circus Maximus to celebrate with their victorious heroes. The Azzurri (blues), whose shirt color and nickname derives from the deposed royal House of Savoy, are one of the most successful national teams in the world. Almost half of Italians define themselves as football fans, and big occasions like the World Cup can bring the country together like almost nothing else. But Italians’ complex and ambivalent relationship with their own national identity means that even the greatest competition in world football can raise as many questions as it answers.
The weakness of Italian national identity is an old problem. Unified only in 1861, Italy is a relatively young nation with a controversial past: the fascist period, the Civil War of 1943-45, the political tensions of the Cold War era (when Italy had the largest communist party in the Western world), and the extremist violence of the 1970s have left both deep divisions and a tendency to mistrust the state and its symbols. A sense of lagging behind wealthy European neighbors in economic, civic, and environmental terms undermines national pride and encourages many young Italians to move to Berlin or London. The lasting economic gulf between north and south; the vibrancy of local and regional identities based on widely different dialects, cuisines, and traditions; and, above all, the relative scarcity of shared values and ideals all mitigate against a strong and cohesive sense of italianità. But it would be wrong to imagine that there's no such thing as an Italian national identity and that there are no unifying symbols: the monarchy may have been abolished, the Constitution may be hotly debated, the anthem publicly booed—but football can transcend these divisions and bring together Italians of all classes and regions.
Can Balotelli create a harmonious new multiracial Italy? It might seem unlikely—but helping to win the World Cup would be a good start.
Football plays a key role in Italian culture, as the passion and exuberance of many fans attests. It is often held up in the media as a positive source of identity and of moral values for children, fostering ideals of hard work and self-sacrifice. Less pious but far more attractive to most people is success: The national team has won the World Cup four times (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006), second only to Brazil. The big clubs (Juventus, Milan, Internazionale) boast impressive European records and the domestic championship is regarded as one of the most important in the world. However, calcio's reputation has been tarnished: Repeated match-fixing and gambling scandals have undermined its moral claims and damaged the credibility of the sport's authorities while incidents of violence—including most recently a shooting at the Cup Final—serve to discredit the fans. As with most professional sports today, it's also hard for a relatively impoverished public to identify closely with such highly paid players.
In a time of severe ongoing economic, social, and political crises, the search for unifying myths seems more important than ever. Can the Azzurri meet this need? Interestingly, the symbolic value of the team might well be strongest abroad: Whereas domestic support can be undermined by equivocations or rivalries, it's often second- or third-generation emigrants who have the strongest sense of connection to the Azzurri. But of course the team's winning record, embodied in the four gold stars on the shirt, is a justifiable source of pride, and the chance to excel against foreign competition is particularly welcome right now. The current Italy team is strong but not exceptional, and lacks a galvanizing star of the caliber of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, or Luis Suarez. Established and reliable players like Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Gianluigi Buffon, and Giorgio Chiellini give confidence to fans, while some promising youngsters like Marco Verratti have been included in the final squad. Here too there is division and dissent, as many fans place club loyalties over country, and rivalry between different teams often affects how the public perceives players in the national side. Italians expect the team to perform well—certainly better than four years ago in South Africa, when as reigning world champions they embarrassingly crashed out in the group stages—but only the most optimistic expect to bring home the trophy in July.
And then there's the Balotelli factor. Even before making his debut for coach Cesare Prandelli's national side in 2010, Mario Balotelli—talented, inconsistent, brash, smart, impulsive—has courted controversy, a bit like a modern-day Jack Johnson. Born to Ghanaian parents and raised by a Jewish-Italian family in the northern city of Brescia, Balotelli turned down the chance to represent Ghana, saying that he felt Italian and was keen to represent Italy. But not everybody sees him this way: Fans have produced chants and banners that proclaim, “There are no black Italians” and “No to a multi-ethnic national team.” He's not the first player of color in the national team—Fabio Liverani, born to an Italian father and a Somalian mother, represented the country back in 2001—but Balotelli represents a greater challenge to traditional ideas of Italian-ness, thanks to his unapologetic blackness.
Historically a country of mass emigration, Italy is a relative newcomer to the realities of mass immigration and still defines citizenship by blood rather than birth. Today, over seven percent of the Italian population is made up of foreign nationals, but children born to immigrants, like Balotelli, cannot apply for citizenship until they reach 18 years of age. He is the reluctant symbol of a new Italy: A country where the birth rate is highest among immigrants, and the white, Catholic homogeneity of the population is beginning to break down. At a time when the young Italians who leave the country are the most highly educated and ambitious, and the economic and social crisis make the long-famed Italian quality of life a vanishing memory, the loss of racial certainties seems especially hard for some to swallow.
Can Balotelli create a harmonious new multiracial Italy? It might seem unlikely—but helping to win the World Cup would be a good start. The strong alternative loyalties, which are often prioritized over identification with the Azzurri, such as support for hometown clubs or loyalty to specific regions, make the national team's grip on the popular imagination rather intermittent. When Italy wins, the flag flies everywhere: The tricolor graffiti from 2006 are still fading on the walls. If Italy loses, it’s back to business as usual, as though no one was really Italian after all.