Balotelli’s transcendent story and our love affair with soccer

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source: Getty ImagesSoccer fans in the United States are too often called on to explain their passions. At school, work, bars and church, followers of the game can expected to be engaged in impromptu discussions of diving, low scoring, simulation, running time, injury time, no hands, and (at the debate’s worst) anything foreign. Most conversations end without a rebuttal. There are only so many times you can reiterate the obvious.

It’s an environment where it’s easy to lose perspective, to forget what made you transcend all the biases and devote yourself to soccer. Amid the tribalism and marginalization, there are so many conflicts to work through when you’re not mining matches from basic cable, satellite feeds, and illicit internet streams. The struggle makes it sweeter, but even when you find those flirtations that hooked you – the atmosphere, drama, and (above all) goals – you’re often left to share your love with people whose names start with @.

NPR, however, ran a Saturday piece reminding us what’s unique to soccer. The post is another telling of Mario Balotelli’s story, and although Sylvia Poggioli’s version offers nothing new, it appears in an outlet that rarely cares about sport. Championships in the big three leagues, Tiger Woods – Serena Williams winning Wimbledon (on their front page as I type) – these stories get the obligatory treatment; nothing in-depth. It takes a story with ties into something bigger, something that touches the lives of people who don’t follow sports, for an outlet like NPR to pick it up.

The U.S.’s big three sports rarely offer this. Star athletes in football, basketball, and baseball are identified, segregated, and groomed in early adolescence, emerging as people with whom it’s impossible to empathize. While Robert Griffin III is interesting to the point of entrancement, the particulars of his life are too far removed to be emblematic. This is the core of the Lebron James problem. He’s grown into a man that reflects the bubble he was cast in as a 15-year-old.

Soccer is not immune to its Lebron Jameses (Wayne Rooney is a good example), and the players that went through Barcelona’s La Masia academy also live lives that bear little resemblance to ours. World soccer’s stars are second only to the NBA’s in the degree to which the distance themselves from the world. Yet with the game’s low barriers to entry, it’s worldwide breadth, and its universal simplicity, the broad swathe of soccer’s talents will always represent the middle as much as the outlying.

Mario Balotelli is not part of that middle. His athleticism alone makes him outlying, as does his past. Born in Italy to Ghanian immigrants before being orphaned and raised by white, Italian-born foster parents, Balotelli’s backstory is context for a career that’s alternated between sensation and scandal. But as Poggioli reminds us, there’s a broader, more important story, something that our tunnel-visioned fanaticism often underplays. Representing a country that’s traditionally imported its diversity, Balotelli is challenging what it is to be Italian. His success at Euro 2012 might bring an end to “There are no black Italians.”

It’s an extraordinary story, but within a sport that reflects cultures better than others, it’s significance is not uncommon. Just this week the legacy of Asians in the Premier League has crept into the news, while Megan Rapinoe’s confirmation of her sexuality comes amid our rapidly changing societal debate. Stories like a bank manager becoming Spain’s Copa del Rey’s leading scorer are more likely to happen in soccer because soccer is not so far from us. And while basketball (becoming as universal as soccer) has stories like Manute Bol’s (life in Sudan), John Amaechi’s (sexuality) and Dikembe Mutombo’s (charitable work), they’re less frequent and feel more like aberrations. They don’t feel like part of that sport’s fabric.

Other sports can reflect culture. Soccer inherently does.

For all of Didier Drogba’s talents, he is the product of an immigrant’s upbringing, his unfettered on-field emotion influenced by an adolescence spent free of expected soccer stardom. Frank Lampard’s life has played out amid quiet expectation, his humility a reflection of a man who’s hard work has given him only slightly more than what was expected of him. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for all his braggadocio, is a product of his environment – a boy acting out in the broken home of a family that left a broken country. They’re stories with universal themes, and while they’re unique to no single sport, soccer’s ability to reflect society makes them accessible to us.

As I sit at CenturyLink Field an hour ahead a Saturday night Sounders match, I see projected lineups with a series of small reflections: Players who are leveraging the United States as a promised land (Alvaro Fernandez); a political refugee on his second life and country (Osvaldo Alonso);  the continued cultural draw of the U.S. (Mauro Rosales); the pure athleticism this culture’s capable of cultivating (Marvell Wynne); and the context for the U.S.’s talents within the greater soccer world (Conor Casey, Hunter Freeman, Eddie Johnson).

The concept goes beyond tropes describing clichéd insecurities of American footy fans. This is about why a soccer story is being prominently featured on a place like NPR.org. It’s about why soccer is always more likely to craft these kinds of narratives – about why its stories will always be closer to the larger world. It’s about what, in this hyper-competitive sports landscape, drew us to soccer.