Mario Balotelli, the black Italian soccer star whose goals have fired Italy into the final of the Euro 2012 soccer championships on Sunday, was raised by a Jewish Italian foster mother from the age of three.
The eccentric, talented, headline-making forward, who was born Mario Barwuah to immigrants from Ghana in Palermo, rushed over to embrace his foster mother, Silvia Balotelli, after Thursday’s win over Germany, which was secured by two Balotelli goals, had given Italy a place in Sunday’s final against Spain.
Along with other members of the Italian team, Balotelli had visited Auschwitz earlier this month before the start of the tournament, which is being co-hosted by Poland, and he was reportedly the player most affected by the visit.
According to a Radio Netherlands report earlier this week, Balotelli sat down alone on the train tracks at the death camp, staring silently ahead. “A while later, he tells his team-mates about a box of letters that his Jewish adoptive mother kept underneath her bed. He had never told anyone.”
Some neo-Nazi groups, in Italy and beyond, who had already been abusing the player because he is black, are now also targeting him for his Jewish “ancestry.” One racist on an extremist web-site, Stormfront, wrote recently: “Balotelli’s black and he’s Jewish. He should play for Israel, not Italy.”
The Balotellis also have relatives in Israel, Ynet reported on Sunday, and their daughter studied at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.
Balotelli, 21, was one of four children born to Christian parents Thomas and Rose Barwuah, immigrants from Ghana. He suffered with life-threatening health issues, requiring frequent intestinal surgery, and his poor health put a heavy strain on his already impoverished family. After they sought state assistance following a move to Milan, the authorities suggested he be placed into foster care, according to the Radio Netherlands report, which is partly based on his biological parents’ account:
“That’s how Mario Barwuah came into contact with the Balotellis” — Francesco and Silvia — “a white family who lived in a villa in a small nearby village. At first, he stayed at the Balotellis during the week and returned to his family on weekends. But after a while things changed. Mario started to treat his (biological) parents with indifference. Ultimately, he took his weekday family’s surname.”
When he became successful as a soccer player, his biological parents sought to re-enter his life, but Balotelli rejected them as “glory hunters.”
Despite his unpromising health and complex family background, Balotelli proved to be a soccer prodigy, becoming the youngest player ever to play in Italy’s third division, at age 15, and ultimately impressing as a player for top Italian side Inter Milan. He then moved to England’s Manchester City, with whom he won the Premier League title this past season.
At the same time, he has been a figure of controversy, ridicule and affection over the years — sporting eccentric hair-styles, once having his UK home set on fire by errant fireworks, and being sent off intermittently for undisciplined behavior on the field.
At the Euro championships, however, he has been one of the players of the tournament. Regarding the racial abuse, his coach Cesare Prandelli said this week: “This is a social problem. If Mario gets any problem, I’ll hug him on the pitch.”
Prandelli has had his difficulties with Balotelli too, dropping him from one of the tournament’s earlier games, but his performance against Germany seems certain to ensure he’ll play in the final.
The player described the victory against Germany as “the most wonderful night of my life so far,” adding, “but I hope Sunday is even better.”
Dedicating his goals to “my mother,” who had come from Italy to watch him play, Balotelli said: “At the end of the game when I went to my mother, that was the best moment. I told her these goals were for her. I waited a long time for this moment, especially as my mother is not young anymore and can’t travel far, so I had to make her happy when she came all the way here. My father will be in Kiev for the final too.”