TURIN, Italy – As far as Mario Balotelli is concerned, he doesn't have to be Italy's captain to be a role model.
"I'm here to score goals. You can also be a role model without wearing the armband," Balotelli said at a news conference on Sunday, a day before Italy's friendly against the Netherlands.
Earlier this week when Balotelli played for Italy for the first time in four years, a banner that read, "My captain is of Italian blood," was draped on a pitch-side wall during a 2-1 win over Saudi Arabia in Switzerland.
With Balotelli one of the most experienced players on Italy's squad, there had been discussion that he might be named captain.
The issue has come to the forefront amid the installation of Italy's new populist leaders, which includes a staunchly anti-immigrant, right-wing party in its governing coalition.
Balotelli was born in Italy to Ghanaian immigrants.
"It would be a good signal for African immigrants to represent my country as someone of African origin and captain," Balotelli said.
"Racism really hurts," Balotelli added. "It's time for Italy to become like many other countries — more open — and to start integrating people who come from abroad."
Balotelli hadn't played for Italy since the 2014 World Cup.
He said he understands why former Italy coach Antonio Conte didn't use him — "I wasn't in great form" — but couldn't see why Gian Piero Ventura never called him up.
"With Ventura I have no idea. We spoke but I didn't understand his explanations very much and I was doing well," Balotelli said. "But he was the coach and so I respect his (decision)."
Ventura was fired in November after Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades.
Balotelli played under current Italy coach Roberto Mancini at both Inter Milan and Manchester City.
Mancini announced that Balotelli would not start against the Netherlands, revealing that the attacking line would consist of Simone Verdi, Andrea Belotti and Lorenzo Insigne.