Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Song and Gaffe: From Weah to Balotelli

George Weah playing for Milan
It went kind of like this: "E' arrivato Weah e Baresi e' di nuovo papa'..." (Weah has arrived, and Baresi is a father again).  The innuendo, sung to a chorus, would move even the most humourless to a wry smile.

George Weah, of course, had nothing to do with Franco Baresi's paternity, but his arrival at Milan from Paris Saint-Germain in 1995 rekindled an old joke.  Baresi's son had, and most probably does, unusually dark skin compared to that of his parents.  Anti-Milan ultras capitalized on an unmissable opportunity to taunt their foe's captain, insinuating that his wife had slept with one of the darker players on Milan: Frank Rijkaard or Ruud Gullit.  Weah arrived after both had left Milan (Rijkaard in 1993 and Gullit in 1995), but he was immediately made to stand-in for them as the joke persisted.

The most credible story seems to be that Baresi's son is adopted, but I remember all of this not for any desire to confirm private matters about his personal life.  Rather, in a week where Milan vice-president Paolo Berlusconi, the viperous younger brother of Silvio Berlusconi, shamed himself by calling, jokingly and lovingly he maintains, Mario Balotelli, "il negretto di famiglia" (the family's little black boy or the family's little slave) at a political event, the almost droll story of Weah and Baresi makes for a relevant counterpoint. 

The video of Berlusconi grinning approvingly at the rally, and drawing laughs from the crowd, after delivering the slur made its way onto La Repubblica's website late Monday.  Eventually, later that same day, the English language media picked the story up as well. 

If you were hoping for unanimous condemnation of Berlusconi, you would be disappointed.  There were those who said it was unacceptable, those who said it was that but acceptable because it was a joke, and those who maintained it was actually said affectionately and the English translation was simply incorrect. 

I confess to have asked my Italian friend whether I was missing any subtlety that would make me look unnecessarily sensitive.  He assured me I was not. It is a slur.

Admittedly, the fact that La Repubblica, Italy's left-leaning newspaper, was the one who ran with the story first does politicize the issue.  After all, this is the same publication that gleefully published a letter from Silvio Berlusconi's ex-wife, Veronica Lario, in 2007, assailing him for selecting female MEP's on the basis of anything but their, and his, cerebral force.  It was a fantastically calculated show of political nous from Lario to pick La Repubblica as the paper of her choice to attack the then prime minister, a paper that doesn't exactly need vigorous brow-beating to flay Berlusconi in print.

Yet, his younger brother's sinister gaffe doesn't demand the passable dignity of political affiliation to be understood as being beyond any parameters of acceptable discourse.  It was simply wrong, and it is not that people of a certain political colour have been overly sensitive about it. 

The joke about Weah and Baresi, on its surface at least, is unkind, but not enough to galvanize political and racial debate.  It is a joke that is just about acceptable, especially considering how malicious football chants have the potential of being.

We all perhaps have lowered expectations of Berlusconi, and the Berlusconis.  Silvio Berlusconi's political miscalculations are somehow always relegated to trivialities come election time because there are so many--so, so many.  But Balotelli is allegedly his shrewd political calculation ahead of the general elections on February 23rd and 24th. 

Paolo Berlusconi makes up with Balotelli at Milanello
His arrival has revived the Rossoneri spirit, flagging after the heartbreaking departures of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic last summer, but it has also contributed to Milan's increasingly cosmopolitan and young team.  Balotelli joins Stephan El Sharaawy, who has an Egyptian father and an Italian mother, and M'Baye Niang, who is also black, in attack.

Predictably, then, Milan's reaction was not to react publically, to treat it all as not an issue.  There were no comments on the matter until after Paolo Berlusconi embraced Balotelli at Milanello on Thursday.

There is no room for mistakes like Paolo Berlusconi's when an election is looming.  Just this past month Silvio Berlusconi lauded Kevin-Prince Boateng and his Milan teammates for walking off the pitch after Pro Patria fans unleashed racist abuse at the midfielder during a friendly.  Given S. Berlusconi's commitment to anti-immigration in the past, his reaction seemed contrived.

"Many have seen the impact Berlusconi has had as [PM] and some rhetoric on immigration contradicts the support of Boateng. The whole thing is ridden with contradiction," said Piara Powar, the head of Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE), reminding us of the hypocrisy, lest we had forgotten.

The case of Boateng was unequivocally offensive, and Berlusconi would have been a fool to quibble over any of the details--as is often the case when something like this happens in Italy.  Similarly, P. Berlusconi's remark was unambiguous as well--it signalled derisive contempt, and it was delivered, even if among smiles, with venomous language. 

"Balotelli and I laughed about the whole thing," P. Berlusconi said. "He knows that I meant it affectionately, and the media exaggerated the whole thing."

P. Berlusconi has an odd way of showing affection it seems.  We have all suspected the worst of public figures in the past.  If only we could lay bare their intentions somehow we would be vindicated for thinking they are actually racist, and that they know how to operate in public to hide it.  The mere glimpse we got into P. Berlusconi's character didn't need to lay it all bare--it was enough to validate our suspicions.

Compared to what he said, it is the chant about Weah and Baresi that seems affectionate.  Unlike Paolo Berlusconi, many of us can still pick out a joke.  

1 comment:

  1. "We have all suspected the worst of politicians in the past. If only we could lay bare their intentions somehow we would be vindicated for thinking they are actually racist, and that they know how to operate in public to hide it. The mere glimpse we got into P. Berlusconi's character didn't need to lay it all bare--it was enough to validate our suspicions."

    Well said, Hasan :).

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