The Balotelli Generation

Issues of Inclusion and Belonging in Italian Football and Society

by Max Mauro (Author)
Monographs 204 Pages


Sports governing bodies, governments and European institutions highlight the inclusive power of sport and its capacity to foster a sense of belonging among youth of immigrant background. At the same time, sport at youth and grassroots level can be as much an exclusionary as an inclusive experience. As a country of relatively short immigration history and with a great passion for sport, particularly football, Italy makes a compelling case on which to situate an analysis of sport participation of youth of immigrant background and issues of representation in relation to national identity. The book originates from 40 in-depth interviews with young players aged seventeen to twenty-three, born in Italy to immigrant parents or raised in Italy since their childhood. It further collates over thirty interviews and conversations with coaches, club and league administrators, educators, and migrants’ rights activists. Analysis of official documents and media analysis further contribute to the construction of a specific body of knowledge which sheds an unprecedented light on issues which are at the forefront of policy discussions and media discourses across Europe.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 Football, Social Inclusion and Belonging. Mapping the Ground
  • Chapter 2 Football, Immigration and Italian Society
  • Chapter 3 Inclusive Leisure or Institutional Discrimination?
  • Chapter 4 Challenges and (Missing) Opportunities
  • Chapter 5 Learning to cope with Racism
  • Chapter 6 The Meanings of Belonging
  • Chapter 7 Sporting Citizenship or Impaired Citizenship?
  • Conclusion Football and its Discontents
  • Bibliography
  • Series index


Sport is the arena where it all comes together: race, class, gender, nation, capitalism, empire, neo-liberalism, globalization. The sporting body is a metaphor for the social under late capitalism (Norman K. Denzin).

When I ask anyone today where they are from I expect to hear a very long answer (Stuart Hall).

Nessuno può chiedere al nuovo venuto di dove venga, né il motivo per cui vuole andarsene (Unione Libera Italiana del Calcio, 1917).1

One of the quotations which I have chosen to open the book particularly exemplifies the underlying motive for this work. According to the dictionary «motive» is said to refer to a «an emotion, desire, physiological need, or similar impulse that acts as an incitement to action». It is exactly what the quotation taken from the statute of the long-time defunct Free Italian Union of Football represents to me: no one can ask the newcomer where he is coming from, nor the reason why he wants to leave. When I was about to put on paper the final notes of the book I thought back to those words written about a hundred years ago and I could not believe how contemporary they are. Europe, the scene of and the setting for this book, is facing the largest movement of people since WWII (World War II). Intensive migration flows from the so-called south of the world to Western Europe have caused the most serious crisis in the history of the EU (European Union). Countries are closing down their borders, other countries are placing tonnes of barbed wire to «protect» themselves from the «invaders», others more «simply» declare they will not take any more immigrants. For the first time in 50 years, Sweden introduced checks at the bridge that links the country to Denmark. Against such a backdrop, this book aims to cast a light on the role of the most popular and global of ← 1 | 2 → sports, football, in the lives of youth of immigrant background in one of the border-countries of Europe. Quite interestingly, the claim of the Free Italian Union of Football refers to sport, namely football, but sends out a message that resonates with what is happening in European societies at large. Football serves as a prism through which it is possible to comprehend the crisis of Western democracies – a crisis which is also the crisis of the nation-state.

Sports governing bodies, governments and European institutions highlight the inclusive power of sport and its capacity to foster a sense of belonging among youth of immigrant background. At the same time, sport at youth and grassroots level can be as much an exclusionary as an inclusive experience. Non-EU citizens living in Europe encounter different forms of discrimination in their daily life, from restricted rights to work and social benefits, to limited inter-state mobility and political participation. To some extent, their diminished citizenship status is reflected in their sporting practice and in that of their children. As a country with a relatively short immigration history and with a great passion for sport, Italy makes an interesting case in which to situate an analysis of sporting participation by youth of immigrant background. Football is the most popular sport in the country and it is the sport that attracts the highest numbers of immigrant youth. Their growing participation rate appears to confirm the inclusive power of football. However, young non-EU players, many of whom were born or raised in Italy, may tell a different story. From lengthy and complicated registration rules, to limitations on the signing of non-EU players in lower professional leagues, and finally to manifestations of racism in youth and grassroots football which often go undetected, their stories bring forward a little known perspective on the state of football in one of the game’s leading countries. Football emerges as a site of precarious inclusion and one where a sense of belonging is not considered to be «part of the game».

This book originates from 40 in-depth interviews with young players aged 17-23, and from over 30 interviews and conversations with coaches, football administrators, and migrants’ rights activists. Analysis of official documents and media analysis further contributed to the construction of a specific body of knowledge. Drawing on cultural studies and critical pedagogy frameworks, the research attributed particular importance to making the young participants’ voices be heard and to undertake research which is as much as possible with rather than on youth. The young participants ← 2 | 3 → represent the «Balotelli generation», as national media defined the second generation of immigration to Italy. Mario Balotelli’s personal trajectory as the first child of immigrant parents to be capped by the national team, and the first black Italian football star, could obviously not be left outside the scope of this study. At the same time, given its exceptionality, it only partially helps to elucidate the football experience of most youth of immigrant background. Two main aspects of Balotelli’s personal story are reflected in many of the interviews: the long process to acquire Italian citizenship for those who are born or raised in Italy; and the problem of racism on and off the pitch. Both aspects of Balotelli’s story testify to different forms of discrimination and institutional discrimination experienced by young footballers of immigrant background. Their uncertain citizenship status prevents them from progressing in sport and representing the country where they live and very often feel is their own. Manifestations of racism are the expression of a wider negative discourse on immigration that permeates Italian society and many European societies today. Organised football, both at elite and grassroots level, reflects and, to some degree, reinforces such a discourse.

It is worth paying some attention to the ways knowledge was produced around the sporting participation of young people, and about their lives more generally. This obviously does not simply refer to the methodology being used. Research relies on assumptions and ideas that the researcher carries with him or herself. As reminded by Norman Denzin and others, also the researcher’s biography needs to be placed under the reflexive light of analysis. So, what is the purpose of undertaking (this) research? Martin Hammersley asks himself if it «is the task solely to contribute to a developing body of academic knowledge, to inform public policy, to directly transform the lives of the people being studied, or what?» (2014: 169). The broad objective of my study was to explore the level of inclusion/exclusion of youth of immigrant background in Italian football, including in this category both those born in Italy to immigrant parents and those who migrated to Italy as children. At the same time, I wished to learn about the meaning of football for young people of immigrant background and how this meaning is related to their sense of belonging. This is already a statement in itself, as it presumes that there is a connection of some kind between sport, social inclusion and a sense of belonging. There is a growing body of literature that looks into sport as a venue to foster the «social integration» of immigrant communities and stimulate intercul ← 3 | 4 → tural dialogue among young people. The present book is situated within this debate, but with ramifications for grassroots football and football as a media representation, and it partly originates from the assumption of the inclusive potential of youth football clubs at grassroots level. As it happens, it is with local, amateur clubs that all the participants in the study (as is similar to many young people with an immigrant background), started playing their football. What makes the game more or less «inclusive»? Is it the coach – a person who acts as a sports expert, an educator or an adult mentor? Is it the club, and its approach towards «immigrants»? Or is it the way the game is organised and managed by the governing bodies, including the design of registration rules? These were some of the questions that constantly lingered in my head during the months spent interviewing, observing, and generally learning about the social world of my participants. At the same time, I was ready to accept that different questions might emerge or that others would evolve during the research process.

Another area of investigation relates to racism and discrimination. To start with, we should agree on a definition of «racism» and «discrimination» in the field of sport. Books and specialised publications provide insightful theoretical conceptualisations of racism in sport and society, but following my ambition of doing research with rather than on young people it was the lived experiences of my participants that provided a definition, or a series of definitions, that made sense to them, and which I was glad to share and discuss. Although, sometimes contradictory, these views illuminate a problematic area of investigation which cannot be approached without also taking into account a reflexive analysis of the role of the researcher in co-creating the narrative. It’s not only the presence of the author that comes into consideration, but also the recognition of the role of the author in the generation of representation(s). The kind of representation that I wished to create was one that highlights the weight of the stories of the participants – many different voices that have the potential of engendering a polyphonic text that «replaces monologue with dialogue» (Tyler 1986: 140).

I was particularly interested in understanding whether experiences of racism suffered by young players of immigrant background both on and off the pitch could undermine their feelings of attachment and belonging to the local community and possibly to the nation/country. Related to this question are the implications of the presence of players of immigrant background, and particularly black players, in the national football team. ← 4 | 5 → Does it enhance the «sense of belonging» of young people of immigrant background? And furthermore, does this contribute to challenging the perception of Italy as a «white», culturally homogeneous country? Other countries in Europe have experienced similar challenges in the past and are still experiencing them; namely the UK (especially England, in relation to football), France, Netherlands, and, more recently, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Sweden. In all these countries, football has served as a stage on which to situate public debate with acute social and political implications for the social inclusion of immigrant communities.

There are, so far, no conclusive or comprehensive answers to these questions. It is, therefore, the aim of this book to fill a gap in the available literature around youth, immigration and sport. However, it would be untrue to claim that it has no other objectives. In fact, similarly to much of contemporary youth studies, this work would like, in the words of Hammersley, «to directly transform the lives of the people being studied» (2014: 169). During many of the interviews and conversations I had with sport administrators, including FA (football association) officials, club directors and coaches, I realised how little importance is attributed to the role that sport could play in sending positive inclusive messages to society when it comes to youth of immigrant background and ethnic minorities. As it stands, despite a few communication campaigns about sport and integration, in Italy the world of official football and sport in general is permeated with values that have limited relation to the social and educational aspects of sport. Moreover, Italian sport governing bodies have historically represented an apparatus that contributes in the maintenance of the national(istic) project. It is, therefore, also useful to shed light on football played outside the realm of the official game, so as to learn more about initiatives which combine grassroots sport with social activism for migrants’ rights.

Chapter one explores the multifaceted meanings of concepts that are often used when the interrelated topic of immigration, youth and sport is addressed. It is important to clarify their usage, and to articulate their implications for the understanding of youth culture, immigration and football in Italy and in Europe. Terms such as «social inclusion» and «belonging» are not neutral and need to be read against the backdrop of the epistemological and political positioning of those who utilise them.

Chapter two looks into the history of immigration in Italy, and in Italian football in particular. Different legal statuses of immigrant youth and ← 5 | 6 → issues of citizenship will be introduced. According to Italian law, children of foreign nationals born in Italy can acquire Italian citizenship only at the age of eighteen. This arguably also has implications for their «sense of belonging». Sport is an area where such «tensions» can manifest themselves and wider social processes can be understood.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (September)
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 204 pp., 5 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Max Mauro (Author)

Max Mauro is a writer and a lecturer focusing mainly on migrants’ rights, youth studies and sport. He is associate lecturer in Sport Studies at Southampton Solent University and associate lecturer in Youth Studies at the Open University.


Title: The Balotelli Generation
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