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'He can never be completely Italian' – Debating racism and citizenship in Italy

Even if footballer Mario Balotelli ‘has Italian citizenship, he can never be completely Italian’, said Luca Castellini, one of the leaders of the hardcore fans of football team Hellas Verona, when asked about racist chants during Balotelli’s last game at Verona. During the match, Balotelli, an Italian born to Ghanaian parents, was a target of monkey chants and threatened to leave the pitch.

That was not the first time that the Italian striker suffered racist abuse, and it was not the first example of racism occurring in an Italian stadium. But this time, it triggered a huge debate. A 2015 article by Mark Doidge helps to explain what happened, racism in football, rivalry between Italian football clubs and fans’ attempts to intimidate Balotelli.

Doidge points out that Balotelli attracts fans’ abuse when playing for Italian teams but not when he plays for other European clubs. In the other countries, he was simply one of the international professional players who move between clubs. But in his country of origin, this gifted player has unintentionally become a symbol for a new, multi-ethnic Italy that clashes with some fan-groups’ conception of nationality.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, there have been several attempts to reform Italy’s ius sanguinis model for citizenship, but without results. Several campaigns have pushed for change, emphasising that children born in Italy to foreign parents speak the same dialects as their peers without migrant backgrounds, master Italian cultural codes and experience their entire socialisation process in Italy.

The second generation has become highly active in lobbying for change. In 2016, the National Coordination of the New Italian Generations was established, and in 2019 it launched a Manifesto signed by associations of young people with a migrant background. As the Manifesto explains, these young people ‘end up being migrants in spite of themselves’. They do not have their parents’ language and cultural barriers, yet the reform of the citizenship law has been in and out of the Italian public agenda, without any results, leaving many without the same ability to participate in society as their native-born peers. 

On 3 October 2019, the Committee of Institutional Affairs of Italian Chamber of Deputies started the analysis of three new proposals, but it remains to be seen if anything will change this time, especially in the presence of an uncertain government coalition.