Young people growing up in Europe are immersed in societies that are increasingly diverse. Issues of inclusion and belonging are at the forefront of policy discussions and media coverage. At the same time, the lives of non-EU nationals living in Europe are defined by legal categories, such as: economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors, extracomunitari, clandestini, sans papier and others. These categories reflect different levels of rights recognised to immigrants and complicate potential patterns of inclusion and belonging.
As Mauro puts it, “Football is a contested site for the manifestation and representation of conflicting aspirations. On the one hand, being interpreted as an “international language”, it is expected to enhance the capacity of societies to accommodate cultural, ethnic, national, gendered, religious, and racial diversities. On the other hand, given the recognised contribution that sporting practices and representations offer to the social construction and legitimisation of identities, particularly national identities, football can also be used as a site for reproducing an imagined status quo, enforcing nationalistic views and claims, and arguably limiting potential for change.”
As a country of relatively short immigration history and with a great passion for sport, Italy is a good place through which to analyse sport participation of young immigrants and issues of representation in relation to national identity. Football is the most popular sport in the country, and it is the sport that attracts the highest numbers of migrant youth.
However, young non-EU players, many of them born or raised in Italy, may share a different view of their reality. From lengthy and complicated registration rules, to limitations to the signing of non-EU players in lower professional leagues, and finally to manifestations of racism in youth and grassroots football which go often undetected, their stories bring about a little known perspective on the state of football in one of the game’s leading countries.
Mauro concludes: “Football emerges as a site of precarious inclusion and one where some categories of young people are formally excluded from participating in organised sport. On a different level, that of the national team, football emerges as a powerful venue for the (re)construction of the ‘national identity’ through the combined effort of sporting authorities, mass media and political discourse. How this process of (re)construction of national identity accommodates ethnic and racial diversity is another of the issues addressed in the book.”
The young participants representing the “Balotelli generation”, as national media define the second generation of immigrants to Italy. Mario Balotelli’s personal trajectory as one of the first people of immigrant parents to be capped by the national team, and the first black Italian football star, make him an important symbol. Two 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 issues of racism on and off the pitch.