Even before Milan opened the new Serie A season against newly promoted Hellas Verona, Mario Balotelli was already being targeted. Amidst fears and predictions that Balotelli would be subject to more racial abuse from opposing fans, Mayor of Verona and member of the far-right Lega Nord party Flavio Tosi engaged in a bit of victim blaming.
"If Balotelli provoked people a bit less, then it would be even better," Tosi said. "There are many black players, but not all of them stoke the fire of the opposition fans. Most have no problems. Balotelli is very good at making himself unlikeable.”
Tosi's comments drew even more attention and expectations of trouble to the match. But in an effort to "disappoint" critics who anticipated nastiness, Verona fans made a purposeful decision to go the opposite way and sarcastically cheer Balotelli. They chanted "Mario, Mario" when he first came out before the match, which he laughed off. They then proceeded to cheer him every time he touched the ball. And so it seems ironic support is the new racism.
As for the match itself, a brace from 36-year-old new signing Luca Toni proved to be the difference for Verona, who won 2-1. Toni dedicated his goals to his daughter Bianca, born in June — a year after his son was stillborn.
Despite a number of good chances and near misses, Balotelli did not score and his frustration on the day resulted in a yellow card for arguing the referee's decision to not award him a penalty in the 90th minute. After the match, Balotelli tweeted, "Compliments to Verona (the players). I take blame for our defeat. Anyway compliments to Verona again."
Complimenti al Verona ( calciatori) mi colpevolizzo della nostra sconfitta. Comunque complimenti Verona ancora.
— Mario Balotelli (@FinallyMario) August 24, 2013
It wasn't all fake niceties from Verona supporters, though. Immediately after the final whistle, there were clashes with the embittered Milan fans, with the two sides throwing seats and other objects at each other.
And to think the season has only just begun.