Recently here on Bleacher Report, we took a close look at what Mario Balotelli the player offers on the pitch. By only analysing his sporting talent however, we miss much of what makes the man who he is today. Seeing him reduced to tears on the Milan bench recently offered yet another insight into his complex character, much of which can be understood by learning how he made it so far.
Born in Palermo—on the Italian island of Sicily—in August 1990, his Ghanaian immigrant parents moved north to Brescia almost immediately. Struggling with health issues and forced to live in desolate conditions, the Italian social services recommended young Mario was fostered.
Aged just three, he was informally adopted by Francesco and Silvio Balotelli, a Jewish couple from Concesio, a small town at the foot of Mount Spina. At first, he only spent a few days a week with them, but soon he adopted their surname and his stay became permanent.
Shortly after his 11th birthday, his prodigious and precocious footballing talents saw him sign for local side AC Lumezzane. Four short years later—after failing to impress during a trial at Barcelona—he would make his first team debut for the Rossoblu on April 2, 2006. That game, in the third tier against Padova, was enough to convince the bigger clubs to once again come calling.
Balotelli would eventually sign for Inter, the Milanese giants paying an initial €150,000 to co-own him, before buying the other half of his rights in June 2007 for an additional €190,000. He made his first-team debut in December 2007 as a substitute and would soon be a regular in Roberto Mancini’s starting line-up.
He would announce himself to a national audience by scoring two vital goals in a Coppa Italia quarter-final against Juventus, helping the Nerazzurri to a 3-2 away win. By the end of that first campaign, he had seven goals in 15 appearances and he would continue to impress, becoming the club’s youngest-ever scorer in the Champions League in November 2008.
It was here that his reputation for being difficult began however as, in that same month, Jose Mourinho had accused Balotelli of showing a lack of effort in training. The then Inter coach would take a tough stance with the young striker, lambasting him in a press conference (via the FIFA website) as he said:
"As far as I'm concerned a young boy like him cannot allow himself to train less than people like [Luis] Figo, [Ivan] Cordoba or [Javier] Zanetti. I can't accept that from someone who is still a nobody, who hasn't made it yet, who is still a talent with potential.
"He needs to train harder, to understand what are the important things for me which I think are important for him and his future.”
Balotelli would be dropped again in January, but would soon return, only for opposition fans to begin their chants against him. Heated rivals Juventus have always been a major part of his story, beginning with the "se saltelli, muore Balotelli" (if we jump, Balotelli dies) chant. It was often in games against other clubs when he wasn't even playing against the Turin side.
It began when he played an antagonistic role in a particularly bad-tempered 1-1 Derby d'Italia draw in April 2009. Repeatedly antagonising Juve players, fans and even the match officials with some theatrical reactions, he sparked a brawl involving Thiago Motta, Felipe Melo and the usually calm Gigi Buffon. Of course he was the goalscorer, proving his footballing ability was always evident, even on his craziest days.
The controversy would continue, starting with an argument with Marco Materazzi and other senior players after throwing his Inter shirt to the ground during a game. His relationship with Mourinho collapsed and he was pictured wearing a Milan shirt on television. He also showed wonderful creativity in telling the local police his name was (then-Juventus striker) Vincenzo Iaquinta after being stopped for a minor traffic offence.
His behaviour brought disapproval from club management, team-mates, fans and the Italian media, all of which combined to make him want to leave. There was really only one place he wanted to go, and that was back to the one man who could always draw the best from him.
Roberto Mancini was something of a wayward player himself, and perhaps it was memories of those outbursts that allow him to show greater restraint, tolerance and empathy with his young protege. That relationship would be sorely tested throughout his stay in the North West of England, but the player seemed to develop some incredible self-awareness.
Speaking at Italy’s training camp during an international break, the striker spoke to reporters about events over the previous years. His goal against Manchester United a month before saw the infamous “Why always me?” undershirt, but it seemed Balotelli already had the answer. Offering a perfect insight into his life, Balotelli told them (via The Independent):
"When you are famous, there's a tendency to talk more about my personal life than what I do on the pitch. It's normal but it annoys me.
"But I am not crazy, absolutely not, although sometimes I do strange things that are considered entertaining."
This was an incisive summation of recent events which had included a car crash, a visit to a women’s prison, throwing darts at youth-team players and letting off fireworks in his bathroom. He broke a curfew to go for a curry, lost a fight with a training bib and had an allergic reaction to grass which led to him being substituted in Kiev.
Like Mourinho before him, Mancini too would give up, the two becoming involved in a fist fight at the Manchester City training ground. A red card against Arsenal prompted the coach to say he was “finished” with Balotelli, going on to say (via Guardian Sport) “we have six games left and he will not play.”
But he would, setting up the Sergio Aguero goal that would give City their first league title since 1968, but more problems, fines and suspensions would follow. This eventually led to his January 2013 move back to Italy with Milan, and once again his talent rose to the fore.
Twelve goals in 13 games lifted the previously struggling Rossoneri into a Champions League spot, and his fine form has continued this season with 12 goals and three assists in 25 appearances thus far. New coach Clarence Seedorf seems to have connected with the 23-year-old, and it is perhaps here where the real "problem" begins to come into focus.
Raised by white parents in the Italian countryside, he would so often have been the only black child at his school or on a team, while racism was and still is a major issue in Italy. With a precocious talent that was always going to take him away from his peers, his feeling of being isolated was and is natural. Like anyone, he is merely a product of his environment.
Here is a player who won three league titles and the Champions League as a teenager, moved to England and won again, with clubs always willing to spend huge sums on him because he is simply that talented. If Seedorf can succeed the way Cesare Prandelli has in reaching Balotelli, the benefits to Milan would be immeasurable.
While his off-field troubles have caused his club managers endless pain, some of his best displays have come in the Azzurri shirt of Italy. Prandelli has shown great patience with the player, working hard to make him feel like an important player, and he been rewarded handsomely for his efforts.
Balotelli’s displays at Euro 2012 included a match-winning performance in the semi-final win over Germany, netting both goals as he showcased every ounce of his ability. With two coaches who understand what he needs and with the passage of time, there could yet be so much more to come.
The raw statistics are already frightening. Mario Balotelli has won four league titles, a Champions League crown, and two domestic cups. He has 96 goals for club and country already. He has played in the final of a major international tournament.
Mario Balotelli is 23 years of age, and he is a long way from Palermo.
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