He is "like the Mona Lisa,” Mario Balotelli’s agent once told Sky Italia. Mino Raiola was, of course, inferring that his client was priceless, angling no doubt to maximise the player’s value, but the analogy can be extended to his entire persona. Much like the ambiguous expression on the face of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous portrait, the striker remains an impossible enigma to almost everyone.
Rather than try to understand him, most just write him off as a troubled soul, adding him to the list of talented footballers who were doomed to failure by their own fragile mentality. There is no question that, like George Best, Paul Gascoigne or Diego Maradona, many of his problems are self-inflicted.
The countless tales of fireworks in the bathroom, darts thrown at youth team players or visits to a women’s prison suit this narrative perfectly and allowed the English media to lampoon him during his spell at Manchester City. Fights with team-mates, giving money to homeless people outside of casinos or wearing a silly hat all played into the image of him as crazy, and that’s before we even discuss his “why always me?” undershirt.
He visited crime-riddled areas of Naples and threw his shirt at the feet of Jose Mourinho whilst the pair were at Inter; each incident is enriched by the telling until it is impossible to separate myth from fact. There are enough stories about the 23-year-old to write a series of novels that would stretch the imagination more than anything JK Rowling could ever dream of concocting.
Yet the truth is right there in that previous sentence: Mario Balotelli is only 23.
He may have played in over 200 top-flight games, won the Champions League and played in the 2012 European Championships, but he remains a young man yet to fully embrace adulthood. This feeling is compounded by his apparent unwillingness to be a spokesman for anti-racism or a multi-cultural Italy.
But perhaps that is no surprise. The people urging him to do so have no way of understanding what it was like to grow up in the Italian countryside, as perhaps the only black face his neighbours and peers would ever see. His Ghanaian immigrant parents abandoned him shortly after his first birthday, and he was raised by a white foster family just outside Brescia.
That, combined with an immense level of talent, meant he has always stood out, a position he has seemingly rallied against ever since. Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and a raft of older players have failed to connect with him, and he has an agent most people despise. Opposition fans and players taunt him constantly–with the media constantly stoking the fire–ensuring he is never too far away from the headlines.
At Milan however, he has found a home, a place where he feels comfortable and team-mates who allow him to express himself on the pitch. It is close to his home in Brescia, meaning he can relax in the company of friends and family, which he often longed for in England. He should never leave.
Occasionally over the past year, the Rossoneri have been carried by Balotelli, the striker lifting them to the Champions League places last term with 12 goals in just 13 Serie A appearances. That mostly stems from him replacing Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a tactical system which appears at times to be little more than "give Mario the ball and get out of his way."
Massimiliano Allegri’s tenure has seen the club regress each season, from Champions three years ago, to second in 2012 and third last term, but that is set to end this summer. The coach has stated he will leave in June, and his replacement will inherit a squad with much more talent than their current league position would indicate. With Balotelli at the sharp end of an attack boasting a resurgent Kaka and the newly arrived Keisuke Honda, why would he want to move elsewhere?
The club’s training ground is isolated from the outside world, and the media access is extremely restricted, leading to a Las Vegas style "what happens at Milanello, stays at Milanello" feeling. That protection suits Balotelli perfectly, and in short, there really is no better place for him to be right now.
He will be nurtured by and protected by old hands such as Kaka or Christian Abbiati, genuine leaders who deflect attention and criticism from the striker. If the new coach is someone who has already connected with him, even Mario Balotelli couldn’t ask for more.