Afritalians: Past is Prologue

By | June 30th, 2012 | 6 Comments

The Africanization of Italy may have started 2200 years ago as Hannibal of Carthage led his troops and elephants across the Alps on the way to Rome, but Mario Balotelli’s two-goal performance in Italy’s defeat of Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinal may be mainstreaming it.

Italians across the political spectrum are gushing in their praise of the 21-year-old striker. “Pride of Italy!” screamed the web site of La Gazzetta dello Sport, which earlier in the week had printed an insulting cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong by Valerio Marini (see below). (Despite an outpouring of criticism from readers and on social media, the paper could only muster this sad excuse for an apology: “if certain readers found the cartoon offensive, we apologize.”)

Earlier in the tournament Balotelli had won accolades for his acrobatic overhead strike against Ireland and for his impeccable penalty which opened the shootout against England (scored against Man City teammate Joe Hart). Now, on the eve of the final against Spain in Kiev, ordinary Italians and the media are comparing Balotelli to Gigi Riva, Totò Schillaci, and Gianluca Vialli — illustrious Azzurri of the past who transcended the football pitch to become popular icons of national culture. A big and very noticeable difference between Super-Mario and his predecessors, of course, is that Balotelli is black — the Palermo-born son of the Barwuahs from Ghana who was adopted by the Balotellis of Brescia. He is the first Afritalian football superstar.

Super-Mario’s central role in potentially ushering in a new phase in the Africanization of Italy is reflected in Italian media stories highlighting how Mario is like you and me: he loves football, family, pizza, and hanging out with his friends. In a country where mothers are sacred and where the Virgin Mary is venerated almost as much as her more famous son, Mario’s loving embrace of Mamma Silvia in the stands at the Warsaw stadium shot an arrow into the heart of every Italian. “Boastful and ‘mammone’, Balotelli represents the prototype of the Italian,” wrote Il Giornale, a conservative paper owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s brother, Paolo.

And Balotelli is not an isolated case; he’s not even the only Afritalian in the Euro squad. Sitting on the reserves’ bench is 24-year-old Angelo Obinze Ogbonna (at left), a central defender who plays his club football for Torino. Born in Cassino, near Rome, of Nigerian parents, Ogbonna was recruited into the Torino youth academy at age 14 and played his first serie A match at 19. Like Balotelli, Ogbonna speaks Italian without a trace of accent. The experiences of Super-Mario and Ogbonna open up an opportunity to consider the history of Afritalian footballers.

Let’s start with Claudio Gentile. He was born in Tripoli, the son of a Sicilian father and a Tripoli-born mother possibly of Italian background, and grew up playing street football in Libya before moving to Como in 1961 with his family. Nicknamed “il libico,” Gentile had his best years at right back for Juventus and Italy in the 1970s and early 1980s, forming with Dino Zoff, Antonio Cabrini, and Gaetano Scirea one of the stingiest defensive lines of all time. Gentile’s ferociously effective man-to-man marking of Maradona and Zico in the 1982 World Cup, which Italy won, has become the stuff of legend.

We had to wait nearly two decades for the next Afritalians to make an appearance in the national team. In 2001, Fabio Liverani, the Rome-born son of a Somali mother and Italian father, made his international debut in a friendly against South Africa. Despite a solid career as a midfielder with Lazio, Fiorentina, and Palermo, Liverani only played twice more for the Azzurri. Around the same time, Matteo Ferrari, the Algeria-born son of an Italian father and a Guinean mother, played eleven times in the heart of Italy’s defense. Prior to Balotelli’s success, Ferrari had held the record for most international appearances for an Afritalian. (He now plays for the Montreal Impact in MLS.)

There are other players of African blood in Italian football. Among them, Stephan El Shaarawi, Stefano Chuka Okaka, and Fabiano Santacroce (of Afro-Brazilian/Italian parentage) have been capped at junior level. There is also a female Afritalian: left back Sara Gama (at right), who also earned the distinction of becoming the first Afritalian woman to captain the U-19 national team, and leading them to the 2008 European title.

Mauro Valeri, a sociologist and author of La Razza in campo: Per una storia della Rivoluzione Nera nel calcio (EDUP, 2005) wonders if the increasing presence of black players at junior and senior level is “perhaps a sign of a transformation underway, of the affirmation of a Black Revolution [in football] that for more than a decade has been unfolding in Italy.” While structural changes would be necessary for such a shift to be lasting and meaningful, social perceptions of Afritalians may be changing thanks to Balotelli’s sudden popularity. In a grim age of austerity and structural adjustment, Italians seem eager for another taste of Super-Mario-triggered football euphoria.

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Germany’s History of Failure vs. Italy Continues

By | June 28th, 2012 | 3 Comments



Super-Mario Balotelli wrote a new page in Germany’s History of Failure against Italy in Warsaw today. He scored two goals, the first a header off a delightful Cassano cross; the second a thunderous strike from outside the box, which he celebrated in inimitable style (photo above). He is Italy’s pride and joy.

Manager Cesare Prandelli did his part as well, completely outcoaching his German counterpart Jogi Loew. Italy now moves on the final against Spain on Sunday in Kiev.

Full Italy-Germany highlights courtesy of UEFA.com here.

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Germany’s History of Failure vs. Italy: Part 3

By | June 27th, 2012 | 3 Comments



After two more draws (1-1 and 0-0) at the 1988 and 1996 Euros, on July 4, 2006, Germany and Italy met again in the semifinals of the World Cup. The venue was the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, an intimidating ground for any visiting team.

In a remarkable affair reminiscent of the 1970 World Cup semifinal at the Azteca (see my previous post here), extra time was needed. The climax defies description. So let’s leave it to Fabio Caressa and Giuseppe Bergomi (1982 World Cup winner at age 18) of Sky Italia to resurrect the memories — spine-tingling ones from an Italian point of view — of that cathartic evening.

Follow me on Twitter during the game tomorrow: @futbolprof

E daje Italiaaaaa!

Germany’s History of Failure vs. Italy: Part 2

By | June 26th, 2012 | 3 Comments



July 11, 1982: the World Cup final at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. Four years earlier, West Germany had drawn 0-0 against a young, enterprising Italian side in the second group stage of the 1978 World Cup — the Argentinean Generals’ Mundial. (Video highlights here.)

1978 was also the year of the assassination of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro (who was held for a month in an apartment building adjacent to my elementary school), and the inauguration of President Sandro Pertini, a dedicated socialist and former anti-Fascist resistance fighter. We didn’t know it back then, but “The Years of Lead” were about to come to an end. Football — or calcio as we call it — was about to show us that the road to the future went beyond Left and Right.

With the pipe-smoking Pertini enjoying the 1982 final next to King Juan Carlos in the VIP section of Real Madrid’s majestic stadium, the Azzurri demolished the (West) Germans 3-1. Not everything went perfectly that night. Graziani’s injury forced an early substitution and then Cabrini — my mother’s favorite player — missed a penalty: the only time I ever heard my uncle, a man of the cloth, swear audibly.




The second half was all Italy. Physically and mentally fatigued after their penalty shootout victory gainst Michel Platini’s France in an extraordinary semifinal (highlights here), Germany caved in. Paolo Rossi opened the score with his sixth goal of the tournament and then Tardelli made it 2-0, celebrating it with such emotional abandon that we imitated it for years on playgrounds and pitches around the land.

When Altobelli added a third late in the game Pertini leaped out of his seat, waving his arms, rejoicing, telling everyone around him that “adesso non ci prendono più!” (Now they’re not going to catch us anymore!). Breitner got a consolation goal, but it didn’t matter. When the Brazilian referee theatrically picked up the ball with his hands, raised it above his head and blew the final whistle, match announcer Nando Martellini pronounced to the masses that we were “Campioni del Mondo! Campioni del Mondo! Campioni del Mondo!”

Millions of Italians thundered in a massive impromptu street carnival the likes of which had not been seen, the elders told us, since Liberation. Giving in to pleas from me and my friend Fabio, my uncle, in his clerical collar, honked his rickety FIAT 127’s horn all the way from our parish in the Marche hills to coastal Pesaro so that we could experience these historic celebrations. A quarter of a century later, another generation would experience the intoxicating feeling of World Cup victory . . . and Germany, once again, would play a key role in Italy’s success story.

Come back tomorrow for the final installment of Germany’s history of failure against Italy.

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Germany’s History of Failure Against Italy

By | June 25th, 2012 | 5 Comments



Germany is favored to win Thursday’s Euro 2012 semifinal against Italy. While Die Manschschaft has played the best and most consistent football in the tournament, the Azzurri have won just one game in regulation and reached the semifinal only after surviving a penalty shootout against England. History provides a counterpoint to soccernomics-style prognostications, however, because the Germans — or West Germans — have never defeated Italy in Euros or World Cup tournaments.

It started with a forgettable goalless draw at the 1962 World Cup in Santiago del Chile, but ignited in a globally televised World Cup semifinal played at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on June 17, 1970, which Italy won 4-3 in extra time. Outside the Azteca a plaque commemorates it as “The Match of the Century.” The video above combines footage of the original broadcast with Fabio Caressa’s 21st-century play-by-play commentary. Rumor has it that this clip is streaming on a loop in the Azzurri’s team hotel . . .

Come back tomorrow for part 2 of Germany’s history of football failure against Italy.

Resuscitating Football on the Zambian Copperbelt

By | June 21st, 2012 | 1 Comment



Guest Post by *Hikabwa Chipande

NDOLA — Zambia’s victory in the 2012 African Nations Cup has spawned a new fashion on the Copperbelt — the country’s industrial and football heartland — where people now wear Chipolopolo (Copper-bullets) replica jerseys as well as chitenge (women’s waist wraps) in the national colors. Selling Chipolopolo regalia has also become big business in street markets and makeshift stores. Clearly, the African champions have re-energized the mood of the nation and revitalized support for football among ordinary citizens, politicians, and business people.

The stability of copper prices, increases in copper production, an improving economy, and the pride of being African football champions, have led ZCCM Investments Holdings, formerly Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines, to reconsider supporting the sport. For instance, private companies such as Mopani Copper Mines and Copperbelt Energy have resumed their funding of Kitwe’s famous Nkana Red Devils and Power Dynamos.

“Winning the African Cup changed things,” says Red Devils head coach Linos Makwaza. “People have started coming back to football. At Nkana [Football Club] Mopani [Copper Mines] is now involved and has taken over which is good,” Makwaza says. The relationship between mining companies and football is not a new one. It has shaped the history of the game in Zambia. As far back as the 1920s, when copper mining started on the Copperbelt under British colonial rule, and into the independence era up to the privatization of the ZCCM mining company in 1991, government-controlled mining companies provided football grounds, financial resources, coaches, players, and stimulated a deeply rooted fan culture.

Zambia’s Nations Cup success has inspired politicians such as Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili to encourage new owners of copper mining companies to sponsor Mighty Mufulira Wanderers, Nchanga Rangers, Nkonkola Blades, Roan United, Kalulushi Modern Stars and other important, but struggling, clubs in the mining province. Abraham Nkole, currently Mighty Mufulira Wanderers manager and a former player in the 1960s and 1970s, sees this shift as an opportunity to resuscitate the “lost glories” of Copperbelt football.

The opening of a modern stadium in the mining town of Ndola has also injected new life in Copperbelt football. I was in attendance on June 9, 2012, for the inauguration of the Chinese-built 40,000 capacity Levy Mwanawasa Stadium, which hosted a Zambia vs. Ghana 2014 World Cup group D qualifying match (see photo). Thousands of fans clad in green and orange Chipolopolo replica jerseys besieged Ndola. With Vice President Dr. Guy Scott in the stands, Chipolopolo beat the Black Stars 1-0 in the packed stadium, thus renewing their hopes for qualifying to Brazil 2014 after being thumped by Sudan 2-0 in Khartoum a week earlier.

Practitioners and fans I spoke to on the Copperbelt are encouraged by recent developments and hope the mining province will soon reclaim its dominant position in Zambian football after two decades of decline. The political and financial investment that is fueling the game’s resuscitation owes much to Chipolopolo’s international success. The question is whether such support will continue should the national team perform badly at next year’s African Nations Cup in South Africa.

*Hikabwa Chipande is a PhD candidate in African history at Michigan State University. His dissertation research is on the social and cultural history of football in 20th-century Zambia. He can be contacted at chipande [at] msu [dot] edu.

Phambili! Izichwe Develops Footballers and Citizens

By | June 13th, 2012 | 3 Comments



In the wake of Pitso Mosimane’s firing as Bafana Bafana head coach, there seems to be general agreement in South African football circles that a plan is needed to develop the local game constructively and sustainably.

On this blog, Mohlomi Maubane recently argued in favor of a German model that synchronizes the interests of the FA, the national team, and of professional clubs. “It is by virtue of young players being trained well that the German national team, and any other national team, can realise its full potential,” added Ted Dumitru and Sipho “King K” Kekana over at maximalfootball.com. “Lack of technical education in this vital aspect made many nations, including SA, compete without an identity and the results have been disastrous,” the two experts point out.

On June 9-10, 2012, the national finals of the under 15 boys’ Manchester United Premier Cup provided some clues about what lies ahead for South African football. At the Nike Football Training Centre in Klipspruit, Soweto, Ajax defeated SuperSport United in the final (2-1) to qualify for the global finals in China in July. The rest of the field featured Orlando Pirates, Izichwe FC, Bidvest Wits, School of Excellence, Diambars, and Mamelodi Sundowns.

According to observers’ accounts, most teams at the Premier Cup fielded sides of tall, strong boys indulging in well-rehearsed kick-and-rush football. Two exceptions stood out: Izichwe FC and School of Excellence. The case of Izichwe, an extraordinary program based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, illustrates how making highly technical footballers out of promising teenagers requires not only financial resources and qualified coaches, but also time and patience.

Izichwe distinguishes itself in a number of ways from the vast majority of youth programs in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent. Founded in 2010, when my family had the privilege of being welcomed into the Izichwe clan, the academy got its name from the regiment (ibutho) of Shaka kaSenzangakhona, the founder of the Zulu kingdom. It operates on a shoestring budget compared to the PSL youth teams in the Premier Cup. It is a not-for-profit organization in which the parents and sponsors — both local and international — actively participate in shaping the sporting and educational development of each youngster.

After intense daily training sessions, the Izichwe boys, many of whom come from humble backgrounds, remain on the University of KwaZulu-Natal campus for a meal and to complete their homework before returning home for the night. Developing responsible citizens is considered just as important as training future members of Bafana Bafana. From a football standpoint, Thabo Dladla, Izichwe’s technical director, points out that while Izichwe coaches understand the importance of the team their priority is individual development. The coaching staff works assiduously to develop the technical, tactical, psychological, physical and emotional aspects of the boys’ game. Another important aspect of the Izichwe approach is the lack of an overbearing, ambitious owner, the kind of person who regularly exerts pressure on coaches and players to deliver trophies and obey the dictatorship of results.

For Bafana Bafana to improve, the quality of play in the Premier Soccer League — the richest league in Africa — must improve; but this cannot happen if football development programs fail to provide players under the age of 16 with the multiple skills required for successful professional careers. Izichwe shows the way forward. As we say in isiZulu: “Phambili!”.

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