A day at Loftus Road
2 July, 2020
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Balotelli – black Italians exist

previously published in Hard Gras no. 88

Exactly a year ago, I also stood in front of Stadio Ennio Tardini in Parma on a Tuesday morning. I was passing through and wanted to check out the field where Gianluigi Buffon made his debut as a football pro. Unfortunately I then met a blunt doorman: “ Im-pos-si-bi-le ”.

Today there are all kinds of males around the stadium and I can just walk to the middle spot. There I have a good view of the painters who apply a lick of paint in the stands here and there, the handful of journalists at the dugouts, and the land servants who decorate the grass.

Due to circumstances, I have been lagging behind in terms of sports news lately. Should Parma play a catch-up game? I ask a boy who just crushes a perky little poll.

The lad samples my neat suit and then looks at me pityingly: “Parma? Italy! We have to face France tomorrow. ” And, already on the way to the next poll: “Too bad you are not a woman …”

I have only been in the Pope and pasta land for 24 hours, and I still take my Italian fellow people seriously. The kid immediately bursts out laughing: “Women are allowed in for free.”

It appears to be an action by the national football association against domestic violence. “A hundred women have already been murdered this year. And well, if it is going to be a boring game, don’t we just look around us? ”

Many tickets are still available at the counters opposite the stadium. Imagine: The Netherlands plays against Germany in full strength in the province. Such a competition has been sold out weeks in advance, but apparently other laws apply in Italy.

The prices are not too bad and I order a ticket next to the main stand. I can’t choose my seat myself, the computer does, says the girl at the checkout. She does not know whether that choice also provides the best place – she has never been inside the stadium. Football will be Parma ham anyway. She likes to dance. And Balotelli is crazy.


Mario Balotelli – I bought some newspapers at the nearby Viale di Partizani D’Italia and cannot possibly ignore the adopted son of the gods. ‘Balo’ has camouflaged his Bentley, must be in the stands for the time being in England, reaps a lot of applause at the first training session in Parma, wants to flames against France, with Italy becoming world champion in Brazil. And so on.

In his magnificent book Italians for Beginners , journalist Beppe Severgnini characterizes his homeland as “a place capable of driving you into a frenzy and a hundred meters away and ten minutes later in supreme rapture.”

The Italian Boot must therefore fit Balotelli like a glove. But a mini-survey of what pensionados at the newspaper kiosk shows that the case is not so simple. The gentlemen agree on only two things: Balotelli is a great talent and the Almighty Interior Designer has forgotten to furnish Balo’s upstairs room. Opinions differ widely about whether Mario is an asset to the country.

An eighties with a potato nose calls him a numb, spoiled brush; another replies that Mario immediately went into the stands after the semi-European Championship final against Germany, which he decided to hug his adoptive mother: “Only an emotional person does that”. Yet another mumbles something unintelligible about ‘the black race’.

Then, when there is a switch from Balotelli to ex-Prime Minister Berlusconi (“I no longer watch comedic films,” says the Frenchman, “politics is enough”), I go looking for YouTube videos with Mario under an autumn yellow tree.

Apart from the obligatory images of a kicking, slapping, ranting, crying, laughing, cheering or just not cheering Balotelli, there is also a lot of beautiful things to see. In a documentary by Canal +, his first youth coach, Gianni Valenti, tells that the then eight-year-old Mario always imitated the actions of his heroes (including Marco Van Basten) during competitions. “At one point he was spellbound. He had to make a few games every time. And if he did not get good crosses, he would flip the ball up and knock it over. It did not matter that the ball sometimes flew over the sidelines. He had made his turn. ”

In another video, a remarkably cheerful Mourinho appears: “We played with Inter against Rubin Kazan. Except for Mario, all my attackers were injured. Just before half-time he received a yellow card. Then during the break I spent fourteen of the fifteen minutes calming him down. I said, “Mario, I can’t switch you, I don’t have any attackers on the bench, please don’t touch anyone, focus on the ball, don’t react to provocations from the opponent, not to referee’s mistakes” … In the 46th minute it turned red. ”


Balotelli and Prandelli – is there a greater contrast possible? Due to all the fuss around rush hour, the Italian national team coach is now a bit more in the media lee. And that while at the last European Championship he delivered a similar performance as six years earlier Jürgen Klinsmann with die Mannschaft : both broke with a past full of saltless successes and opted for a fresh, widely admired playing style.

When a herd of journalists gathered in front of the stadium in the late afternoon, I joined them and walked in shortly afterwards. Without a press card, but waving a passport, which turned out to be sufficient for the one (!) Man strong security. Fifteen minutes later, Prandelli enters the press room – sun-tanned, insightful look, the black-gray hair combed back fat. Italy have lost its last three exhibition games, but the coach looks relaxed. He has faced hotter fires.

Less than a month after he succeeded Fabio Capello at AS Roma in 2004, he turned in his contract because he wanted to assist his seriously ill wife Manuela. When she got better a year later, Prandelli signed for Fiorentina. Manuela died in 2007. About her deathbed, he said, “I will never forget her last caress. I carry her last words with me, but I cannot pronounce them. Then they would leave me. ”

This talk is about tomorrow’s match and – of course – about Balotelli. With a grin from Parma to Pisa, Prandelli says: “I often tell him for the fun of it that I may be the only trainer who can get along with him, because I have always had him under my wing so briefly.” According to the national coach, Balo can form a strong attacking couple with the just 20-year-old Milan player Stephan El-Shaarawy, but if Mario wants to play for Italy, he must also adhere to Cesare’s ethical code: ‘Unsportsmanlike behavior = no selection’.

For example, Prandelli is an admirer of AS Roma star player Daniele de Rossi. But he delivered an elbow strike two days earlier in the derby against Lazio Roma. Exit Stadio Olímpico, but also exit Squadra Azurra. Troublemaker Antonio Cassano was previously punished by the national coach.

Conversely, Prandelli is also generous. In early 2012, for the friendly game against the US, he selected Simone Farina – a mediocre Serie B player, but with rock solid principles. Farina had previously been approached by gambling mafiosi and reported it to the police, after which Prandelli had him train with the Italian football elite as a thank you…

After half an hour full of civilized questions and answers it starts to itch for me. Prandelli may be a special man, but he does not provide much verbal fireworks. Did I unconsciously fall prey to journalistic evalGalization? Who will say it; compared to Louis, the majority of the top trainers mainly talk obediently.

Someone behind me whispers that the first players are entering the field for light training. I am gone.


Mario Balotelli is the last to emerge from the players’ tunnel under loud applause. He looks like a giant among his teammates. When Prandelli took over the helm from Marcelo Lippi in 2010, he quietly built a new Italy, with a solid defense, a capable midfield and creative attackers. Height and physical strength were no longer a blessing and so it is possible that Balotelli and captain Giorgio Chiellini are surrounded by class gnomes such as the 1.65 meter long Marco Verratti (5 cm smaller than Wesley Sneijder!), The equally large Emanuele Giaccherini and Sebastian Giovinco ( 1.64 m). Andrea Pirlo is not a giant either, but it has recently floated a few centimeters above the ground thanks to an impressive philosophical beard.

In the absence of Prandelli, the players frolic in a one-touch giant rondo and here again Mario makes the difference. Instead of just tapping the ball, he regularly shoots it hard towards the underbelly of a fellow player. Miraculously, there are no casualties and some disapproving screams from his colleagues.

Mario also continues to fire cannonballs with Prandelli on the field. High time for a relaxed practice game, with the keepers Buffon and Sirigu in particular acting remarkably well. After 45 minutes the training is already over and players and staff trickle into the catacombs. However, to the delight of the spectators, Balotelli continues to practice on free kicks for a while. With visible pleasure he chases ball after ball into the goal, until an assistant explicitly directs him to the player’s tunnel.

There I am now waiting for the multi-millionaire that my adoptive son could have been. A bit nervous, because my real son has just announced on Facebook that his father will score a signature from Balo. The journalists around me don’t stand a chance. “That turd just keeps on going, watch out,” says a young guest with a giant microphone in his hand.

When Mario approaches us within a few meters, I ask Signore Balotelli if he can give my son an autograph. He holds the pace, looks at me hesitantly for a moment. The assistant gestures for him to walk on, but Mario slips past him and grabs my notebook and ballpoint pen.

” Grazie … His name is Maurice,” I say.

“Maurizio?” It sounds softly. Kind eyes, a timid look. If Mario acts this embarrassment he deserves an Oscar.

Other people are now starting to beg for a signature, so I quickly say that ‘Maurizio’ is okay.

” Grazie ,” says Mario, and returns pen and writing (“For Maurizio, Mario Balotelli”).

The giant microphone journalist pulls my jacket for a piece of paper. He will also receive a scribble from Balotelli. When I remind him of his derogatory remark, he shrugs and casts an almost desperate look at the sky.


The match. With barely twenty thousand spectators, the stadium is by no means full, although according to the announcer, more than five thousand tickets have been distributed to women. My profession is also teeming with ladies. However, a slender, fashionably dressed man behind me will be the worst. Like me, he has a ticket for seat number 40, but the metal numbers in his row have a curious sequence: 30–32–40–36–39–34. And because there is a large glass wall next to me, he feels more for ‘his’ chair.

The woman at 40 would like to move to 34 until she feels the glass in her side. Then a fierce discussion arises about what is decisive: a normal order or the numbering that is screwed to the seats. In other words: universal logic or human work? Ultimately, logic wins, thanks in part to statements of support from other women in our profession. The man shows himself to be a bad loser and walks away not to return.

That the Prandelli code has not yet penetrated everywhere is also evident when playing the folk songs. The fifty-strong brass band has barely started using the Marseillaise or there is a whistle from the stands. Cesare and his staff do not hesitate for a moment and start to applaud, at which also the eleven Azurri, including Balotelli, join hands. Three tones later, the entire stadium collapses for the French.

Whenever Balotelli comes near us, a five year old boy holds up a piece of cardboard: “Super Mario: you are the best! Dateci dentro tranne te ! ” The child’s father answers my question what ‘ Dateci dentro tranne te ‘ means, with a grin. The student next to me also laughs. Her mother takes pity, says, “You know, men and women, pregnant – that work …”

That work? A few months earlier, Balotelli impregnated his ex-girlfriend in injury time, but would this kid with his cardboard report on it in chocolate letters?

I have plenty of time to think about things like this, because the match is getting off to a slow start. Both teams play sloppy and when the audience starts the wave after about twenty minutes out of boredom, Balotelli thinks it is enough and hits the bar. Moments later he sets up a smooth combination, which El-Shaarawy rounds off effectively.

Until then I barely heard the spectators. The tifosi that populate the Curvas weekly and loudly support their clubs for ninety minutes are not found here. It seems that people only cheer for Italy when something is won. Could it be because the country has been a collection of city-states for centuries? This time the joy lasts exactly two minutes, because the French quickly equalize through a nice action by Mathieu Valbuena.

While in the second half there is cheerful cheering about everything but football, Italy shows its most attractive side: smooth positional play, smooth attacks via the wings, shots on the post and crossbar, but in the end the French substitute Bafétimbi Gomis scores the winning hit.

The unfair defeat does not seem to bother the public. They have been chatted again and have seen an attacking Italia , with an industrious Balotelli and a surefire striker of Egyptian origin. After the game, Prandelli says he is satisfied, despite the new friendly loss. According to him, the duo Balotelli – El Shaarawy have a bright future.

Mario himself can also be satisfied. Unlike in the Premier League, he once again played the full ninety minutes. Moreover, the times when people sang “Black Italians do not exist” seem to be over.


And ‘ Dateci dentro tranne te ‘? Once on the street, I ask an officer and his female colleague. They first look at me in surprise. Then pissed. I chat a bit about a child with a Balotelli banner, but the man hisses that I have to keep walking.

Later, an Italian connoisseur will explain to me that ‘ Dateci dentro ‘ contains a cry of encouragement à la ‘Hup hup’, but that the phrase I uttered means something like ‘Ram it in, except you’.

That work…

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