Mario Balotelli, the Early Years: A Precocious Prankster with Absolute BeliefAugust 4, 2015
The following is an exclusive extract from Balotelli: The Remarkable Story Behind the Sensational Headlines, by Luca Caioli.
He is smiling from ear to ear, the kind of smile only seen on the faces of those who are really happy, in seventh heaven.
Mario Barwuah Balotelli was lucky enough to smile such a smile on 15 June 2002 in Padenghe sul Garda. The final whistle has just blown at the Bresciaoggi Trophy final, and his team-mates have lifted him up onto their shoulders. He is smiling, something he rarely does on a football pitch; his mouth is open and his eyes are full of joy. He is holding the cup that has just been won by the Lumezzane under-13s.
Years later, on 16 February 2014, three days before a Champions League game against Atletico Madrid, Mario would post this same photo on his Facebook page. It was his way of wishing himself good luck for the knockout phase of Europe’s most important competition. Dragging up a distant childhood memory when you play for AC Milan may seem strange, but far from it: For Balotelli, that victory was the greatest of his career, second only to his Champions League win with Inter. He has both said and written so.
Giovanni Valenti, his friend and former coach, confirms that this was an important moment in his life. Mario scored three goals. It was an unforgettable victory, a cup that was particularly dear to Balotelli. The Bresciaoggi Trophy was as big as the Champions League in the world of youth and amateur football in Lombardy, and this time Mario’s opponents were Pavoniana, the club with which he had spent a season.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Pavoniana were Lumezzane’s long-standing rivals, and there had been a pinch of extra spice since Barwuah had been welcomed back into the fold at Lumezzane. The bosses at Pavoniana Calcio took it badly: They wanted the boy to end up at Brescia. On paper, the team from Pavoniana, in white and blue with Giulio Comai as their manager, were clear favourites. They were the strongest team in the province of Brescia and had been on a winning streak in recent weeks, taking the league title and winning various tournaments around the country.
They also had a 13-year-old called Adama Fofana, who had been born in Bouake in the Ivory Coast but grown up, like Mario, in Brescia. He was a centre-forward and reputed to be a very good player. This became apparent early on in that final in Padenghe: A cross came in from the right, Adama took it with his right foot, passed Bravin, the Lume defender, with a rainbow kick and, on the fly, fired the ball past Gatta, in goal for the red and blues. The stands erupted into cheers; it was a goal that reminded older fans of the one scored by Pele, the Black Pearl himself, in the final of the 1958 World Cup against Sweden.
It had started ominously for Lumezzane, but they refused to throw in the towel. Valenti, their coach, started screaming and waving his arms; he told them to keep pressing up the field, fight for every ball and exploit their opponents’ mistakes. In short, not to play as if they had already been beaten.
It was time for Mario to get involved. From the edge of the area, he lifted a perfectly timed lob to surprise Bossini, Pavoniana’s keeper: 1-1. A few minutes later, Barwuah helped his team take the lead. He won a penalty and scored with a powerful shot down the middle. It was 2-1. At the start of the second half, Fofana tried to draw Pavoniana level but failed. Mario took advantage of an error from Bossini as the keeper spilled the ball, possibly on the receiving end of a shove, and scored easily.
The final score was 3-2. Lumezzane’s budding superstar, the youngest on the field (his team-mates and opponents were all a year older), had proved that he was a fast, strong, decisive and opportunistic goalscorer. With a hat-trick to his name, he had plenty to celebrate. But before he ran over to hug his team-mates and coach, before they lifted him up, before the big smile even, Mario went over to Fofana, from the opposing team, another black kid just like him. It may sound as if it could not have been scripted better, but it really happened.
Now 25, Fofana, who has spent years travelling around Italy, Greece and Lithuania and now plays for Prato in the Pro League, remembers that moment well: "The thing that struck me most about that final was that Mario came over to commiserate with me while the others were all celebrating. I was really upset. That trophy meant a lot to me, and I had scored two goals. It did not seem fair to me that they had won, although looking back on it, they deserved it. That’s how football is. Mario shook my hand, told me I had played a great match and that he was sorry we had lost. Only after I had told him everything was fine did he go over to his team-mates. It is something that has stayed with me. I’ll never forget it."
Adama would have his revenge, however. He tells the story with a smile at the end of his afternoon training session: "We went to the same comprehensive, the Lana Fermi in Brescia, near Via Oberdan. In the third year, we found ourselves against each other again in the final of the school tournament. My class against his, and that time I won. I left everyone standing and scored the winning goal after they had taken the lead. Mario may have scored two goals, but that time it wasn’t enough to beat me."
Andrea Santin was the captain of the under-13s; the boy ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼lifting Mario onto his shoulders in the picture. He had come to Lumezzane from the Mompiano parish sports centre that same year, with Valenti. He played with Mario until he moved up to the first team. Thirteen years later, Santin is still playing in the Promozione (sixth division) for Navicortina, a team from Nave, a town seven kilometres from Lumezzane. He plays for fun while studying Economics at Milan’s Catholic University.
He remembers that famous match as one of the best moments of his teenage years. He remembers Mario as a "good player, a very good player, although I never expected him to have the career he has had. He was undoubtedly talented and was in the right place at the right time. Above all, he was always convinced of his potential. When he was 15, I remember we were playing a friendly tournament at Mompiano. He was doing very well, he scored something like 20 goals and told everyone he was aiming to win the Ballon d’Or. Back then, we gave him a hard time about it...but he was right. He hasn’t won the Ballon d'Or, but any kid would have signed up to get as far as he has. What is certain is his desire for football, something many now call into question, but it’s something he’s never been lacking.
"Last summer I met him in New York, where he was on tour with AC Milan. I asked him to come and play a practice match with the Japanese kids who were studying with me. He replied that he would have loved to but couldn’t do anything to jeopardise the friendlies he was playing for the Rossoneri. He wants to play football, that’s always been one of his strengths. Other kids develop different interests as they grow up: discos, cars, motorbikes, but Mario’s never been interested in that kind of stuff."
Perhaps by now he has changed his mind about cars, discos and nightlife...but Santin is not convinced. He thinks many of the things written about Balotelli are not quite true, that they have been made up or are nothing more than gossip. He remembers when Mamma Silvia (Balotelli's foster mother) "would not let him come out with us for pizza or when he went to a nightclub for the first time." He was 15 and ended up there with his team when they were celebrating winning the league.
Santin is sure that Balo the celebrity has become more important than the footballer. He tells us after a lecture at the university: "If he is going to rediscover the peace of mind he needs to play football, he has to be less of a target, less at the centre of a media circus."
This is an opinion shared to some extent by Michele Cavalli. The maths teacher explains: "Such interest in him has been sparked because he has become a celebrity and because he is talented. He has the kind of talent that is hard to tame. This is why they study him, follow him and put whatever he does under a microscope. It’s also why they are slower to forgive him and look for the seedy side in everything he does.
"Mario is not someone who will hide. He has never done that. But now, he is so exposed to the media that he is expected, or rather it would be desirable if he behaved differently, but in some ways he still behaves like he did when he was a kid. Perhaps he needs a different kind of maturity to tackle what has been thrown at him. But let’s not forget that he is only 24 and everyone screws up at that age. I defend him because I’m biased. I’m fond of him."
Cavalli, the coach who watched Balotelli’s trial at Lumezzane, does not find it hard to admit his weakness for the player he inherited from Valenti in the 2003–2004 season. He says that Mario could not be considered precocious: "He was agile and rangy but he had yet to develop real muscle. He was still growing and didn’t reach physical maturity until he was 18. But ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼technically, he was already outstanding."
He also remembers the famous video tapes played on the minibus TV to entertain the group during long journeys to away matches. "When they were talking about players the kids knew because they were still playing, like Roberto Baggio or Francesco Totti, they would all watch. But as soon as they went back further, where the colours faded, the images became black and white and they didn’t recognise anyone, they would lose interest and go to the back of the bus. The only one who stayed, open-mouthed, was Mario. He would watch them all: Pele, [Diego] Maradona and [Alfredo] Di Stefano. He watched everything that interested him and stored it away."
It was the first year of the Regional Under-15s, and Cavalli had a good group: "In that league of 18 teams, we finished fifth or sixth, behind AC Milan, Inter and Atalanta. We racked up 65 points, one of the best results in the history of Lumezzane’s youth scheme. We even had t-shirts made up to celebrate those 65 points. As well as Balotelli, there were other valuable players, such as Marco Pedretti. He and Mario could both make things happen, they were both stars. But that chemistry, a relationship that would have helped the team a lot, was never sparked between them."
So let’s get this right: They were like two cockerels in the hen coop, rivals on the pitch, budding champions that were constantly at each other’s throats? "Exactly. That’s how it was," Cavalli adds. "So many times I tried to explain to them that if they would just work together a little, if they got to know each other a bit better, if they respected each other’s skills and played together and not, as would sometimes happen, against each other, the team would benefit and be even more successful. But there was no way.
"I think Mario tried to win Marco over because he has always needed to have a relationship with people he thinks are good, particularly from a sporting point of view, but Marco was reluctant. I remember plenty of after-match sessions with me on the bench and the two of them sitting in front of me on the grass while the rest of the team was already in the showers. I would try to convince them to behave differently."
Casalromano is a town of 1,600 inhabitants in the province of Mantua, in Lombardy. The village’s amateur sports club is where Marco Pedretti now plays. He earns €500 a month to cover his expenses for the 60-kilometre trip he does three times a week up and down to Brescia. Pedretti works as a postman; football for him is now almost a hobby.
"Ours was a love-hate relationship. To be honest, whenever Mario called me and asked me to play in whatever tournament it was, I would go. I never turned him down. I never said I wouldn’t go because he was going. In fact, I enjoyed it. On the pitch, I helped him score a lot of goals. Like now, he wouldn’t do all that much. During training, he didn’t like running or doing the drills the coach wanted, but when you passed him the ball, you knew he was going to score. The ball made him sing. The most exciting match I remember? That time against Brescia. All the kids knew each other, and we wanted to make a good impression. We won, 1-0; it was very satisfying. Mario scored with a rocket from outside the box past his lifelong friend, Sergio Viotti, who was the Brescia keeper."
What was Mario like off the pitch?
"He liked to mess about like he does now, but he was a child back then. He wasn’t bad. When it came down to it, he was a good guy. But he allowed himself to get dragged into things by others. He needed friends and didn’t go out very much. He tried to get close to us, to become part of our small group whenever we went out in the evening or to eat pizza. Mario would have liked to have been part of our friendship group, but he went about it in the wrong way."
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼What do you mean? "He was constantly a real pain in the neck and would pull pranks all the time. Bad ones, sometimes. Instead of getting closer to us, he ended up becoming more distant."
What was the worst prank you remember? "There were so many, it’s not that I don’t want to tell you." Pedretti is reluctant to dwell on the matter but then admits, "It’s true that he would pee on our bags containing our clean clothes and he would pee on people too..."
The list of over-the-top pranks goes on and on, and this by no means covers everything: hidden jackets, team-mates’ football boots thrown as far as he could, stunts that regularly provoked furious arguments with his friends.
Santin admits, "It’s true that everyone remembers him as a turbulent child. Before he came to Lumezzane, there had been trouble with the odd kid, but they were things that happen in all the youth teams. They would argue with each other all the time. The only difference is that Mario is now famous and these episodes have become more important than they really were. He could be a pain in the neck, but nothing out of the ordinary."
Cavalli explains, "Of course, there were times when we had to intervene to give him a dressing-down or to tell him off, but I could name 15 or 20 other kids who got up to all sorts." We leave it there.
What does Marco Pedretti, someone who played alongside him, think about how far Mario has come? "I’m happy because I don’t know what else he would have done with his life given that when I knew him, he always had his football with him. I can say that I frittered away chances. Obviously, I dreamt about getting to that level and earning all that money, but in another way I feel lucky. ... I don’t know whether I have the right personality for the life of a top player. They can’t enjoy their lives, they don’t have any privacy, they get followed everywhere and their names are always on everyone’s lips. Mario more so than others; trouble seems to follow him around like it did when he was a child. He doesn’t do it to get noticed, it’s just how he is."
It’s just how he is: "A kid like any other, exuberant and boisterous," Cavalli explains. "With him, you always had to find the right line between toughness and understanding. Between the stick and the carrot, if you like. He had plenty of character and knew how to show it.
"I’ll give you a good example. We were playing at home against Mantova at the Rossaghe ground. Mario didn’t start. I don’t remember why, I think it might have been something to do with him having caused trouble during the week. It should have been an easy game for us but instead we were a goal down at the end of the first half. I decided Mario’s punishment was over and put him on. He immediately picked the ball up in the midfield and went on a solo run, skinning four opponents and scoring. 1-1.
"Five minutes later he did it again, exactly the same thing. I remember he was on his own with just the keeper to beat and instead of scoring, he decided to kick the ball out. Did he do it on purpose? I don’t know. After the match, which ended 1-1, I said to him in the dressing room: 'Well done, Mario. That’s what we expect from you.' He smiled: 'Of course,' I added, 'you could have scored the second goal as well.' Mario looked at me, smiled and said: 'Yes, I could have.' I’ve always thought that because I decided not to put him on in the first half, he decided that a draw was enough. It was his response to my decision."
Michele Cavalli stopped training Mario after a year-and-a-half. He moved from the under-15s to Massimo Boninsegna’s under-17s, because, as Ezio Chinelli recalls: "When he was￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼with us, he always ended up playing one category above his own, with kids who were older than he was."
The professor and former pupil met again when Mario was already at Inter. "That morning I had read in the Gazzetta dello Sport that he would be joining the first-team training camp. In the evening, by chance," Cavalli recalls, "I bumped into him at Brescia. It was summer, and he was cycling around with a friend. 'So, Mario. You’re going to the camp. Are you happy?' I asked. 'Yes, I’m very happy, coach.'
"I’ve always been an Interista, so for some reason I said: 'Next time I see you, bring me [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic’s shirt.' 'Next time, I’ll bring you my shirt, coach,' he said. That sums Mario up. And he kept his promise. He came to the school and brought me the shirt he was wearing when he scored his first goal for the first team, against Reggina in the Coppa Italia. I thanked him and said, 'You were right, Mario. I’m sorry.'"
Balotelli: The Remarkable Story Behind the Sensational Headlines is set for release on August 6 by Icon Books.