Balotelli to cast himself as hero in bronze

Lords of war? Mario Balotelli, left, and a statue of Roman Emperor Augustus © Getty Images

Mario Balotelli, Italy’s talented football eccentric, has commissioned a bronze statue of himself in a defiant, muscular pose. Do acts like these reveal the sport’s essentially warlike nature?

With 36 minutes gone in the semi-final of the Euro 2012, underdogs Italy were leading Germany by a single goal. The ball broke loose from a German corner and an Italian midfielder lofted a pass over the defence for Mario Balotelli to chase. Powering towards the goal, the young striker took one deft touch then thundered a mighty shot into the top corner.

Balotelli knew how important the goal could be; suddenly, the European Cup final was in Italy’s sights. As ecstatic teammates hurtled towards him, he ripped off his shirt, clenched every muscle in his upper body and fixed the crowd with a challenging glare.

It was an unmistakable gesture of defiance and strength. Balotelli had been the target of constant criticism and abuse; now, having proved himself on the field with a moment of unstoppable power, he had become a conquering hero. The image became instantly famous around the world.

This week, the eccentric star ordered this warrior pose to be ‘immortalised’ in a statue of bronze and stone. ‘I have imagined him as an athlete from ancient times,’ said the sculptor, and the comparison with antiquity is apt: in Ancient Rome, military leaders would often commission statues to memorialise their moments of glory.

Another custom of the Roman Republic was to reward victorious generals with a ‘Triumph’: the heroes would lead their troops through packed streets, displaying to cheering crowds the treasures they had won. It was not unlike the trophy parade now traditional for cup-winning sports teams.

The military parallels do not end there. There are banners and flags, horns and drums; charismatic captains and ‘midfield generals’. Indeed, the whole game is often referred to as an ‘invasion sport’, along with others such as rugby, basketball and hockey.

As legendary Dutch manager Rinus Michels, himself known as ‘The General’, once said: ‘Football is war.’

War games

For many people, this atmosphere of tribal hostility makes football an ugly and unappealing affair. Fans yell vicious abuse, fights break out on the pitch and all of it is driven by blind and irrational loyalty to a meaningless cause. Football, they say, brings out all of the most dangerous and disturbing characteristics of the human race.

But this tribalism is part of who we are, reply football fans – and since these primal feelings need to be indulged, sport is a far less harmful outlet than rioting or war. Virtues like skill, strength and determination once made senseless bloodshed seem like heroism; now we celebrate the same exhilarating qualities on the football pitch, with none of the horror attached.

You Decide

  1. How justified are comparisons between sport and war?
  2. Are tribal loyalties and rivalries an inevitable part of human nature?

Activities

  1. Pick an athlete you admire and design a monument in their honour.
  2. French philosopher Albert Camus once said, ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.’ Write a brief essay suggesting what Camus might have meant by this quote. Do you agree that sport can teach important moral lessons?

Some People Say...

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death... it’s much, much more important than that’Bill Shankly”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this warlike atmosphere have any effect beyond the pitch?
Sometimes. In 1969, when a football match between Honduras and El Salvador descended into violence, an actual war broke out – though it only lasted 100 hours. That is obviously an extreme example but it is not so uncommon for sporting rivalries to spill over into broader society.
For instance?
Tottenham fans in Rome have been targeted twice in recent months by racist thugs. And last year, 74 people were killed in football riots in Egypt: the fallout came close to throwing the country into anarchy.
Are there any positive consequences?
Football tribalism can fuel rivalry, but it can also strengthen local bonds. There are many charities which use football to boost community projects and some football teams (such as St Pauli in Hamburg) fund ambitious social projects on the side.

Word Watch

Criticism
Balotelli’s behaviour on and off the pitch has often come under attack from managers and the media. He is famous for his outspoken opinions and mad stunts; he often gets sent off or clashes with other players and has been called ‘immature and unpredictable’ by a senior coach.
Abuse
Black footballers are still a rare sight in Italian football and Balotelli has suffered from racist abuse since his first professional match – sometimes even from his own teams’ fans.
Eccentric
There are numerous stories of Balotelli’s outlandish acts, and many of them are true. Once, for instance, he drove unannounced into a women’s prison to ‘have a look around’.
Statue
It is not only mavericks like Balotelli who get statues built to them. A bronze Alex Ferguson stands with his arm folded outside Manchester’s Old Trafford, for instance, while Arsenal’s stadium is surrounded by casts of former stars. And a statue recently unveiled in Paris reveals a literal moment of football violence: Zinedine Zidane’s famous headbutt during the 2006 World Cup final.
Roman Republic
Under the Republic, Rome was governed by a constitution that mixed democracy, aristocracy and monarchy. It was replaced by the Roman Empire when Augustus was made Emperor in 27 BC.
Invasion sport
Any sport in which each team attempts to penetrate the territory of its opponent is known as an ‘invasion sport’.

Subjects

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