Mario Balotelli represents a new, diverse approach for the Azzurri national team, one that looks beyond creed and colour. Sadly, it is not reflected in the stands.
Pride and prejudice of Italian football
Upside Down Jack is a character from an Italian children's book, one being well-reviewed and marketed in the lead-up to Christmas. Jack is a 15-year-old boy, different from other kids in that he walks not on feet but on his hands. Thanks to the support of friends and his own determination, Jack overcomes hostility from others and defeats his sense of alienation.
One of Upside Down Jack's friends in the novel - titled Buuu and written by an Italian sports journalist - is Mario Balotelli. Yes, the same, sensationally gifted and sometimes ill-disciplined Balotelli, a European champion with Inter Milan, now of Manchester City and freshly capped by the Italy national team. The real-life Balotelli gladly lent his name and image to the book because he appreciated the underlying theme, the allegory.
Jack, writes Balotelli in a foreword to Buuu, "is almost as tough as I am". He identifies with the boy because "I have learned that just because you do things differently, whether it's the way you talk, or pray, or think, it doesn't mean you are upside down. I am Italian and I am black, and I'm proud of that".
Balotelli, 20, has been obliged to assume the role of spokesman for black Italians since he was barely a teenager, and sometimes it has been an uncomfortable position for a man so young and, in many ways, still immature. Through Buuu, Balotelli articulates his feelings as powerfully as he ever has.
"In England," he wrote on the basis of his experience of the past four months, since moving to Manchester, "the culture of integration is much deeper than in Italy." And in football, that most universal of theatres, the distinction between England and Italy is noted frequently.
England may not be perfect, but its stadiums, once notorious for prejudice on the terraces, are in many ways an example for other lively football cultures in Europe to follow. Italy has long had a problem with racist abuse in football crowds, and recent high-profile incidents demonstrate the disease is far from eradicated.
Only last week, during a Europa League match between Juventus and Manchester City, Patrick Vieira was racially abused noisily by members of a sparse audience. (The result of the game was academic, given that City had already qualified and Juventus had failed to.)
Indeed, Juventus fans - albeit because of a minority of them - are acquiring a new and nasty reputation. The club were fined last year for the sustained monkey chants and xenophobic comments aimed at Balotelli when he played against Juventus for Inter.
What happened to Balotelli when he was last on duty for Italy identified the problem as a national issue. The striker, the son of Ghanaian immigrants to Italy, was born in Sicily and raised by adoptive parents in Lombardy. He has played twice for the senior Italian XI, both times in friendlies.
His debut, against Ivory Coast, was encouraging and the audience colour-blind: the match took place in London. His second cap, last month against Romania in Austria, would be stained by the premeditated insults aimed at him from a group of Italians who had made the long trip across the northern Italian border armed with offensive banners. "No to a multi-ethnic national side", read one.
By the time Balotelli makes his competitive international debut for Italy, fitness and form permitting, it will be in late March and the Azzurri will be marking an anniversary - 10 years since Fabio Liverani became the first black footballer to represent the senior national team.
Liverani, now of Palermo, was hailed as a pathfinder not just for a game with a bad tendency to attract followers with racist tendencies but for a more modern Italy, a place of growing diversity and, it was hoped, increasing tolerance. Liverani would in the year of his international debut, 2001, join Lazio, a club with perhaps the strongest association with demonstrations of insular nationalism on the curvas.
In his first month, Liverani, the Rome-born son of a Somali mother and an Italian father, had to endure seeing freshly spray-painted swastikas on the walls at Formello, the club's practice ground. But opposition to his presence at the club would quieten down.
Lazio, it seemed, had turned an important corner and realised that anything that discouraged black players from joining their team would be detrimental to their chances of success on the field. At least one very fine footballer, the France defender Lilian Thuram, had in 2001 turned down a lucrative move to Lazio because of the extremist leanings of a vocal set of Laziali.
"I didn't want to play somewhere where I wasn't in harmony with the supporters," Thuram said.
Thuram retired from playing in 2008, with a record number of caps for his country and a series of titles earned through a distinguished club career in France, Italy - with Parma and Juventus - and Spain. He also became one of the most powerful and intelligent voices in football's fight against racism, a cause he continues to champion.
"I suffered, unfortunately, from, how should I put it, hearing noises while I was playing in Italy," Thuram said. "In my time, when black players touched the ball in Italy, certain spectators made monkey noises. It didn't happen every match, but it wasn't very nice to hear. But I learned that it's something you can understand easily enough: it comes from the simple fact that the image of black people is a negative image and has been for a long time. It's still the case now."
Football, and sport in general, has an important role in tackling that negative image, argued Thuram, but it cannot be expected to act in isolation from broader society.
"There are lot of black players nowadays, and that's something that works in the struggle against racism because many kids have black players as idols and there's a big audience who put on their televisions and support their teams, see black players and get familiar with blacks. But it's just a small part of society, and the long-term answer is in understanding the causes of racism, and through education."
Unfortunately, not all the opinion-formers in Italian football are quite so thoughtful as Thuram. Marcello Lippi, the former national coach, responded, last year, to the monkey chants aimed at Balotelli by certain Juventus fans by saying they were "not racist". Lippi's theory - a familiar one among the denialists - was that because Balotelli in particular seemed to be targeted, although there were other black players in the Inter team that day, it was personal and therefore it wasn't xenophobic.
"If it was racist chanting," said Lippi, "the Juve fans would have done it to [Sulley] Muntari and Vieira, too."
The Italian authorities are stepping up efforts to stamp out the problems in stadiums. Earlier this season, a Serie A referee held up a match in Sardinia, under threat of stopping it with victory awarded to the visitors, because Samuel Eto'o, the Inter striker, was being subjected to monkey grunts. The offenders shut up. And Lippi's successor with the national team, Cesare Prandelli, has shown a determination to defy the sorts of spectators who would bring offensive banners and prejudices to Azzurri matches.
Prandelli believes the best Italian team is a diverse one, not because he wants it used as a tool in representing a "rainbow nation" but because he wants the best players.
Balotelli is one of them. So are non-black footballers born in South America, like Amauri, of Juve, or Lazio's Cristian Ledesma, or in the United States, like Giuseppe Rossi, the Villarreal striker, who captained Italy against Romania.
"Any Italian citizen can play for my team," Prandelli said, "and when you hear these chants against certain players, you feel anger and disappointment. Something must be done to stop them, but sometimes we feel helpless."