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And the Euro 2012 soccer championships ended last Sunday with Spain's defeat of Italy. But many singled out the second-place team as the tournament's unexpected surprise. The star of Team Italy is the Sicilian-born son of Ghanaian immigrants, who raised by an Italian adoptive family. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has a letter from Italy on Mario Balotelli, who's changing the notion of what it means to be Italian.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: After Mario Balotelli scored two spectacular goals in the semifinals against Germany in Warsaw, Italians all over the world exploded in joy and a new national hero was born.

CROWD: (Cheering) Mario.

POGGIOLI: As the triumphant striker approached the stand, he gave this championship its iconic photo off the playing field - the six-foot-two black Italian Mario hugging his petite white Italian mother, Sylvia. The sight of mom's hand caressing the Mohawk-topped head sent a powerful message in a society where la mamma still plays a crucial role and where immigrants are most often treated as second class. And when Balotelli ripped off his T-shirt, proudly showing off his statuesque physique, it was as if to see say I'm black, I'm Italian and I am here to stay. Balotelli is Italian-born and speaks with a broad northern accent - and yet, until only days before Italy's victory over Germany, Mario had been the brunt of racist epithets on and off the playing field. Soccer fans in Turin had chanted: there's no such thing as a black Italian. He was often greeted with monkey imitations and bananas thrown at him. Could some of those fans now celebrating Balotelli have been the same who had long taunted him with racist slurs? With the mass influx of immigrants over the last two decades, racism in Italy - unconscious as well as conscious - has soared. Just before the Italy-England match, the main sports daily la Gazzetta dello Sport carried a cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong climbing Big Ben. Faced with protests, the paper apologized to anyone who might have taken offense, but it did not grasp that the cartoon itself was deeply insulting. Following a team visit to Auschwitz before the championship, Balotelli told teammates his mother is Jewish and the daughter of Holocaust survivors. When word got out, a neo-Nazi website posted, Balotelli is black and Jewish and should play for Israel not Italy. Immigrants today represent close to 7 percent of Italy's population, but many do not welcome them. Italians' suspicion toward foreigners is reflected in one of the West's most restrictive citizenship laws. Even children born here are not guaranteed citizenship. Balotelli himself was not allowed to become a citizen until he turned 18. There are more than half a million children like him, born and raised here and speaking Italian as a first language, but they're not citizens because their parents are foreign. Italy is also the most rapidly aging society in the West. Its very low birth rate has started to rise only thanks to immigrants. The future of Italy could depend on those President Giorgio Napolitano has called the new Italians. He has urged a change in legislation that would recognize children born here as Italian citizens. And many new Italians now hope the soccer player's success on the playing field will finally lead to a Balotelli citizenship law. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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