Soccer Shtetl: Balotelli Scapegoat

In Front Page, The Breakdown by Aaron WestLeave a Comment

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When a coach says “It is not something I stand for. It is something I will deal with on Thursday,” you know somebody is in trouble. You know someone is going to be riding the pine, or at least running extra during training. To have your coach publicly state that he “doesn’t stand for” what you did must mean you have done something very bad. Right?

Or perhaps, you are Mario Balotelli, and you swapped a jersey at half time.

The enigmatic Italian striker’s nascent journey with Liverpool F.C. has been riddled with silly “issues” like this, but the jersey incident was the latest, and perhaps the most vicious “incident” of Mario’s Liverpool tenure. At the same time, it was the most trivial. Over at SB Nation, Special Ones contributor Zito Madu did a good job of breaking down why this scandal was silly in a sporting sense. Here, I want to look at it from a different angle.

You see, many people do not know this but Mario Balotelli is Jewish. His adopted Italian family (he was born in Palermo but then given up by his birth parents, as they could not afford his medical care) is Jewish; he was raised in a Jewish family. His sister even studied at the same graduate school in Israel as my sister (IDC Herzliya). You may recall that before the 2012 Euros, the tournament where Balotelli scored his famous brace against Germany, the Italian national team visited Auschwitz. Here, it was reported, Balotelli had an emotional moment, as any Jew who has visited these horribly significant killing fields has. Later on he revealed a family secret to his teammates, a box of letter his mother hid under her bed, from the Holocaust.

But enough about Balotelli’s Jewish bona-fides, I want to discuss something else: his scapegoating. Balotelli is not scapegoated because he is Jewish – many do not realize he is – though his status as a Black man on a racist continent certainly plays a part in his scapegoating. Wherever Balotelli has gone in his career, he has taken blame when things go south. We first saw this at Man City, where the English press took advantage of Balotelli’s eccentricity and created an image of him as a clueless, even wreckless, goofball who happens to be very good on the pitch.

Balotelli had this issue in Italy too, when he joined A.C. Milan. The Italian press did not target him as strictly as the English media has, but he was nonetheless given much attention after every disappointing Milan result, as if a striker is to blame when a team’s midfield or defense screws up. You may notice that is EXACTLY what happened last week.

After the 2014 World Cup, when Italy fell out of the group stage, Balotelli saw his status as a scapegoat spread to the Azzuri. Many fans, and some pundits, placed the albatross of blame onto him. Nevermind Cesare Prandelli, nevermind the defense. Nevermind his goal versus England. Clearly, Italy lost their last two games because of Balotelli. He hasn’t been called up since the World Cup, with Prandelli being replaced by Antonio Conte. Conte stated when he took that job that he would only call up “uomini veri” – which could be an expression of Conte’s preference for tough players, or a thinly veiled shot a Balotelli.

Throughout his career Balotelli has been a scapegoat, often at times when he is nowhere near to blame. It is in these moments where he is the most Jewish. For Jewish history is full of stories of the Jews being scapegoated. In 1492, for example, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and the Jews were kicked out of Spain. This only 101 years after thousands of Jews were massacred in Spain. There were a few religious reasons for this, dealing with the Spanish Inquisition and “false” converts to Christianity. But there was another reason: Jews have historically been involved in banking because in the past many religions and some nations had various laws discouraging or not allowing certain people to “practice” banking. Jews often filled the role of banker, which created both a historical trend and a stereotype. The Spanish expulsion was one of countless expulsions Jews have faced – not unlike how Balotelli has seen himself unceremoniously sold off by his various clubs through the years. Each time, of course, it is assumed that the seller is better off due to both the monies received and the fact that Balotelli, the “problem child” is gone.

More recently, scapegoating of the Jews has led to serious upheaval and change in the world and Jewish community. Alfred Dreyfus, a decorated French military officer, was falsely accused, convicted, and hung of trading military secrets to the Germans in a trial fueled by old fashioned European anti-Semitism – which is, coincidentally, so in right now – this shambolic “Dreyfus Affair” inspired a Jewish journalist named Theodor Herzl to start the modern day Zionist movement.

Later, Hitler would scapegoat the Jews. Blaming them for the Great Depression, and the various issues plaguing Germany in the 1930s. Nevermind hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, or the Treaty of Versailles, it’s the Jews’ fault. While it sounds silly now, this was (and in some places still is) an effective campaign strategy. We all know how that case of scapegoating ended.

We are now in 2014, and we still see Jews being scapegoated. Mario Balotelli is but one example. Only two months in to his Liverpool tenure, and Brendan Rodgers recently ominously said We will see come January what the team needs” in reference to Mario. Liverpool, who have struggled this season, have many more issues than Balotelli. Rather than evolve in the face of a changing side and changing opponents, some supporters and members of the club would rather scapegoat the new signing. Crazy Mario Balotelli.

Balotelli is not scapegoated because he is Jewish. I am not accusing the Liverpool F.C. of anti-Semitism, though some of their fans may be guilty of that. But I wanted to point out Balotelli’s Judaism, because in my eyes he is one in a long line of scapegoated Jews. And like those Jews, Balotelli will carry on. Perhaps Liverpool will sell him in January, and maybe, finally, Balotelli will discover a fan base who accepts, and doesn’t scapegoat, him. Or maybe the Liverpool fanbase will accept him and discover how good he really can be.

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Aaron West

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