ROME Italian striker Mario Balotelli's starring performance in the Euro soccer championship last month has focused a rare spotlight on the serious but neglected problem of racism in Italy.
Balotelli's two stunning goals, which knocked out Germany in the semi-final, turned him into a national hero - even if that aura was diminished after Italy's rout by Spain in the final.
The tournament generated a rash of local media stories looking at how Balotelli's life reflects the travails of black Italians and immigrants in a country which seems largely in denial about whether there is a problem at all.
Such coverage or discussion is rare despite regular episodes of racist violence, including the murder of two Senegalese street traders by a militant rightist in Florence and the burning down of a Roma camp in Turin, both last December.
Some of the most shocking episodes have been linked to mafia gangs in the south, where many illegal African immigrants are employed in fruit and vegetable picking.
In a notorious incident at Castelvolturno, near Naples, in 2008, a hit squad from the Camorra mafia killed six immigrants from Ghana and other parts of west Africa in a racist attack during an operation against a rival group of gangsters.
In 2010 more than 50 people were injured during rioting in the Calabrian town of Rosarno after immigrant farm workers were attacked by local youths. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, now leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League, blamed the problem on lax policies against illegal immigration. All the African workers were later shipped out of the town.
Racism is often most obvious in soccer stadiums where Balotelli, and a string of other black players, have frequently been the victims of racist abuse, despite claims by soccer authorities that it is not a big problem.
BALOTELLI MOST PROMINENT VICTIM
But Balotelli suffered racism long before he became its most prominent victim in Italy.
The 21-year-old striker was born to Ghanaian parents in Sicily and then given up for adoption to an Italian family when he was three. He grew up in the city of Brescia - a stronghold of the xenophobic Northern League.
Like other children of immigrants, he had to wait until he was 18 to go through the complex and difficult process to win Italian citizenship after years of having to obtain residence permits like a foreigner.
"You are forced to queue interminably at police headquarters for a residence permit. I did it once with my mother and that was enough. She did it for me dozens of times...and this is one of the lesser problems you face," he said.
He has suffered a lot worse on the soccer field. Both in Italy and during the Euro championship he endured monkey chants and bananas thrown on the pitch. He seems to anger racist fans more than other black players in Italy, precisely because he is Italian and not a foreigner.
When Balotelli played for Inter-Milan, rival Juventus fans liked to shout: "There are no black Italians." His decision to move to Manchester City in 2010 was said to be partly motivated by this kind of treatment.
Critics say Italy's head-in-the-sand attitude is blocking a systematic response to racism - which has been on the rise since mass immigration began in the late 1980s and accelerated in the last decade.
Until 1990 immigrants made up less than one percent of the population compared with more than 7.5 percent now.
According to a Human Rights Watch report last year, Italy has failed to take effective action to prevent and prosecute racist violence and consistently understated the problem.
HRW called for a much more aggressive official condemnation of racist violence, a strengthening of the law against racist-linked offences and more specialized training for police.
The report's author, HRW senior Europe researcher Judith Sunderland, told Reuters there had been little progress since last year although there was "less xenophobic discourse" since the fall of the government of Silvio Berlusconi last November and the near collapse of his ally, the Northern League, in a corruption scandal earlier this year.
LITTLE CHANGE UNDER MONTI
She said there had been few institutional improvements under Berlusconi's successor, technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was brought in to face the threat of a Greek-style debt crisis.
"Tackling racist violence is not a clear priority for the Monti government given its focus on the economic crisis," Sunderland said.
Anti-racism campaigners are frustrated at the lack of focus on the problem.
"There has been a short sighted policy which has not paid attention to prevention and integration," said Carlo Balestri, an official of the anti-racist sports organization UISP.
"They are just starting to move but it is always with difficulty and a serious delay because politics in Italy always reacts (only) to an immediate emergency and does not plan for the medium or long term," he said.
While there have been some shockingly violent racist attacks in Italy, the most striking daily manifestation is the careless use of racist terms long outlawed in many other countries.
"It is shocking how politically incorrect everyday conversation can be in Italy. It is pretty amazing what people will say without reflecting or being called to account," said HRW's Sunderland.
The Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper issued a somewhat half hearted apology when there were protests after it published a cartoon during the Euro championship depicting Balotelli as King Kong, swatting away footballs from the top of London's Big Ben.
Soccer, a national passion, often mirrors both the strengths and weaknesses of Italy. President Giorgio Napoletano said as much welcoming the Italian team back from the Euro championships.
"You have achieved extraordinary results and there is still much to do to achieve a fundamental renewal...but am I talking about Italy or football? The arguments are very similar."
As it has done several times in the past, the team went to a major tournament with low expectations following a debacle in the 2010 World Cup and on the heels of the latest in a string of major match-fixing scandals.
NOT THE PERFECT ROLE MODEL?
While there are hopes that a figure as high profile as Balotelli can make a difference, there are plenty of reservations about how much change he might achieve.
"Obviously it is a long process. I don't think it will make an enormous difference overnight," said Simon Martin, a soccer historian from the American University of Rome.
Martin sees Italy in the same situation with racism in soccer as England in the 1970s, where similar banana throwing and monkey chants were rife. Since then vigorous action by soccer authorities and the prominence of black players has largely eradicated the problem there and in other European countries.
"It needs pioneers but Balotelli has more potential influence than possibly anybody in the early days in England because he is so damned good," Martin told Reuters. But he shared the wide criticism of Italy's football federation for not taking tougher measures against clubs whose fans are guilty of racist abuse.
UISP's Balestri felt Balotelli was not the perfect role model given his playboy reputation and history of bizarre off-pitch antics including setting fire to his house in England with fireworks.
"Balotelli is a bit spoiled. He has a loud-mouth side that might not be the most virtuous model to follow," he said, adding that other black players in Italy had been more credible campaigners.
Nevertheless, there is no doubting his fame - Balotelli's face with its gold mohawk haircut is currently splashed on the front of many Italian magazines covering everything from fashion to gossip.
His personal story could have its most immediate impact in boosting a major campaign to change the law so that the children of immigrants don't have to wait for citizenship until they are 18 like him.
"Looking at Mario is a bit like looking at all the kids of color who go to our nurseries, elementary and secondary schools, to swimming, basketball, and ask only to be legally Italian," said La Repubblica journalist Maurizio Crosetti.
"Perhaps from today it will be a bit less difficult for them."