Italy's new government is squabbling with one of the country's most famous footballers over immigration

Screenshot/Sky SportsMario Balotelli, during a famous incident after scoring in a Manchester Derby in 2011

  • Footballer Mario Balotelli and Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister, Matteo Salvini, are locked in a war of words.
  • The fight started after Balotelli said him becoming captain of Italy’s national team would be “an important sign” for immigrants in the country.
  • Balotelli was born in Italy to Ghanaian parents, but Italian law meant he could not become a citizen until he was 18.
  • “Balotelli might surprise me, but in the past he hasn’t seemed to me to be a humble person that unites everyone,” Salvini said.

A somewhat unusual political battle is emerging in Italy, as its new interior minister finds himself battling with one of the country’s biggest sports stars.

Footballer Mario Balotelli and Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League, have fought over comments Balotelli made about immigration, after it was reported he may become captain of the Italian national team.

“It’s time for Italy to become like many other countries, like France and England, which integrate people that come from outside,” Balotelli, who was born in Sicily as the son of Ghanaian immigrants, said in an interview.

Eligible to play football for both Ghana or Italy, Balotelli chose Italy, as he considers himself to be Italian.

“For me it wouldn’t change much. I’m here to score goals, not to be the captain, and you can be an example even without the armband. But it could be an important sign for all those migrants who come to Italy and see me, originally from Africa, become captain of the national team,” he said.

Those comments have drawn the ire of Salvini, who is staunchly opposed to mass immigration into Italy, with the interior minister questioning the decision to possibly make Balotelli captain in a radio interview.

“The captain should be representative, should play football well, and doesn’t have to be white, yellow, or green,” Salvini said, according to a report from Buzzfeed News.

“I hope the manager doesn’t choose the captain for sociological, philosophical, or anthropological reasons, but because he unites the dressing room, is humble, and plays well,” he added.

“Balotelli might surprise me, but in the past he hasn’t seemed to me to be a humble person that unites everyone.”

The row continued after Balotelli questioned Italian citizenship policy, which meant that despite being born in the country and living there his entire life, Balotelli was not able to become an Italian citizen until he turned 18.

“I was born in Italy, grew up in Italy; I’ve never been to Africa, but I only became Italian at 18,” he told reporters.

Salvini then hit back, saying that the concept of jus soli, which allows those born in a territory to become a citizen of that territory, isn’t “my priority, nor that of Italians.”

Salvini is one of the three key decision makers in Italy’s new coalition government, after agreeing the terms of that government with Luigi Di Maio, the head of the Northern League’s coalition partner, the Five Star Movement. The League rose to prominence partly thanks to its strongly anti-immigration platform.

After stints in the UK and Italy, Balotelli now plays in France for OGC Nice.

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