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Immigration is a relatively new phenomenon in Italy, which has struggled to accept and adapt to some of the changes brought by people from Africa, South America, Asia and Eastern Europe who came to do jobs that affluent Italians now reject _ like picking crops, laying bricks or caring for the elderly. Tens of thousands of kids, like Balotelli, who were born there of non-Italian parents must wait until they are 18 before they can claim citizenship. That, essentially, gives the impression they are second-class Italians, and it riled Balotelli.

“I’m very attached to my Italian passport. I should have gotten it straight away and not waited for my 18th birthday,” he told France Football.

But Balotelli’s exploits in soccer, a sport that ignites passions and admiration like no other in Italy, have fueled appeals for change, including from Giorgio Napolitano, the country’s president. Receiving the Italy squad last November, he called immigrants “the lifeblood for our country” and said their Italy-born children “feel completely Italian and they should be given citizenship as soon as possible.”

That moved Balotelli to tears. “It touched me. That’s my story,” he said.

Again on Saturday, the eve of the final, the speaker of Parliament’s lower Chamber of Deputies, center-right leader Gianfranco Fini, appealed for reform, invoking Balotelli’s example in calling the children of immigrants “not a problem but a resource.”

But Premier Mario Monti is entirely focused on salvaging Italy’s stricken economy and says the citizenship question is a political issue that is not in the remit of his government to solve. Previous calls also got nowhere, hitting a wall of opposition from the anti-immigrant Northern League party that helped keep Monti’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi, in power.

Still, Balotelli’s performances are focusing minds against racial intolerance. UEFA has fined Spain and Croatia a total of $125,000 after their fans chanted abuse and monkey noises at him at these Euros.

Italy’s leading sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, also apologized after some readers protested about a cartoon that depicted Balotelli as King Kong. Even a Northern League lawmaker, Mario Borghezio, on Saturday hailed Balotelli as a northern Italian “with dark skin. And that’s absolutely fine with me.”

“Whether the racists like it or not, the joy that exploded the other night in the piazzas for the fantastic goals of our black son swept away, for a magic moment, decades of stereotypes,” Gian Antonio Stella, who chronicles Italian society, wrote in the daily Corriere della Sera, under the front-page headline, “Mario and the pride of the new Italians.”

Balotelli has not spoken at these Euros about the racism he has faced. But the image of him clenching his muscles like a bodybuilder, black and beautiful for all to see, after his second goal sank Germany seemed to speak volumes. The referee, as soccer’s rules demand, showed Balotelli a yellow card for going shirtless, but he was unapologetic.

“If anyone is angry for my celebration, it’s because they saw my physique and they’re jealous,” he said.

With another goal Sunday, Balotelli would become the top scorer of Euro 2012. His sister is flying to Kiev to join the rest of the Balotelli family. The eyes of the world will be on him _ challenging and hopefully sweeping away ignorance with his feats and feet.


AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf at Euro 2012 and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed.


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