In the summer of 2000, newly promoted Brescia pulled off a massive coup by securing the signature of 33-year-old Roberto Baggio, who was a free agent after leaving Inter Milan. In the second half of the 2000-01 season, Baggio was joined at Stadio Mario Rigamonti by a young Andrea Pirlo, who had been loaned back to his formative club by Inter. It was while attempting to fit the two playmakers into his starting XI that Brescia coach Carlo Mazzone had the inspired idea to move Pirlo back into the deep-lying regista role where he would go on to make his name.
With Baggio and Pirlo in tandem (never more memorably than when the latter teed up the former for a magnificent late equaliser at Juventus in April 2001), Brescia finished eighth in Serie A—the club's highest placing since 1946—and reached the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia. And Balotelli witnessed some of it with his own eyes.
A local boy, Balotelli spent the 2000-01 season playing for district club Pavoniana, which had a partnership with Brescia. As part of the arrangement, Pavoniana's players would work as ball boys for Brescia's matches, which is how Balotelli—then aged 10 years old—ended up spending some of his afternoons watching Baggio and Pirlo from the sidelines at the Rigamonti.
Brescia had previously attempted to sign Balotelli when he was playing for local youth side Mompiano. They were also one of several clubs that made bids for him in 2006 after Lumezzane, the club he went on to play for, were relegated to Serie C2, but he ended up joining Inter. This summer, they finally got their man.
In Balotelli's words, it was his late adoptive father Francesco Balotelli's "dream" that his son would one day turn out in the blue and white of Brescia. The 29-year-old's decision to join his hometown club on a three-year deal was therefore rich in personal significance.
"My mum cried when I told her I had the possibility of coming to Brescia," Balotelli said at his introductory press conference last month. "I asked what she thought and she was just crying. She's very happy."
Before "Super Mario", before "Why Always Me?", before the supercars and the diamond earrings, before the fireworks and the darts and the training-ground bust-ups, before the fresh starts and the false dawns, Mario Balotelli was simply a football-mad little boy.
He first came to Brescia with his biological parents, Thomas and Rose Barwuah, who moved to the Lombardy region after first settling in Palermo following their arrival from their native Ghana in the late 1980s. Obliged to share a one-room apartment with another African family in the town of Bagnolo Mella, the Barwuahs asked social services for help looking after three-year-old Balotelli (then known as Mario Barwuah), who had already spent nine months in hospital in Palermo after undergoing surgery to correct an intestinal problem.
Social workers recommended that the boy be fostered by a retired local couple, Francesco and Silvia Balotelli, who had successfully fostered other children. The couple, who eventually became Balotelli's adoptive parents, lived in the hamlet of Sant'Andrea near Concesio, a small town a short drive north of Brescia.
As detailed by Luca Caioli in his 2015 book, Balotelli: The Remarkable Story Behind the Sensational Headlines, the story goes that it was in the long hallway of the Balotellis' duplex apartment that the young Mario first started kicking a ball around.
He went to school in Brescia—first at Torricella junior school in Urago Mella, then at Lana Fermi secondary school—and it was in the streets north of the city that he spent his free time with childhood friends Marco Martina Rini and Sergio Viotti, riding their bikes, playing football and hanging out at the Mompiano parish sports centre.
His first football club was San Bartolomeo, but he soon left to play at Mompiano, where his elder foster brother, Giovanni, had played. Lino Fasani, chairman of Mompiano, told Caioli that the young Balotelli played in gloves "for five months of the year" and that his foster mother would rub white coconut cream into his legs before games to help him to keep warm and prevent his skin from drying out.
When Mompiano played away from home, such was Balotelli's phenomenal ability that the parents of opposition players would complain that he was clearly playing in the wrong age group. He was—but not in the way they thought. Miles ahead of players his own age, he spent most of his time playing alongside boys one or even two years older.
As a rare black face in an overwhelmingly white region, Balotelli got used to attracting attention from a young age. While Brescia was his home, it was also, with sad inevitability, the place where he had his first experience of the racism that he has had to contend with throughout his life. "He was born and raised in Italy, but had to suffer the humiliation and hardships of being considered a foreigner," Silvia Balotelli once said.
Although Balotelli left Brescia in a footballing sense when he signed for Inter in 2006, he continued to live at home in Concesio, from where his parents would take him on the hour-long drive to the club's Interello training facility every morning. As he told the Inter website in January 2007, despite having signed for one of the most famous clubs in world football, he was still taking part in kickabouts with his friends at the parish sports centre. His home is a place that has always exerted a powerful pull.
Bought by former Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino in 2017, Brescia are back among the Italian elite for the first time since 2011 and have managed to keep hold of the squad that Eugenio Corini led to the Serie B title in the spring. Corini's men sit 12th in the Serie A standings after two matches of the new campaign.
Balotelli is yet to feature, as he is serving a four-match suspension after being sent off on his final appearance for Marseille at the end of last season. But he will soon have an opportunity to form what has the potential to be an explosive strike partnership with Alfredo Donnarumma (no relation to AC Milan goalkeepers Gianluigi and Antonio), who was the leading marksman in Serie B last season with 25 goals.
Fans of the Rondinelle ("Little Swallows") will also be salivating at the prospect of Balotelli linking up with Sandro Tonali, the 19-year-old midfielder whose elegance, passing range, ball-striking ability and flowing brown hair have invited obvious comparisons with another former Brescia midfielder. It could be Pirlo and Baggio all over again.
Having turned down a chance to move to Brazil with Flamengo, Balotelli used his introductory press conference—which had to be delayed after hundreds of fans flocked to the hotel where it was taking place—to declare that he is targeting a place in Italy's squad for next year's European Championship. After spending four years in the international wilderness, Balotelli made his Italy comeback in May 2018, but he has not played for his country in close to a year.
Roberto Mancini knows Balotelli better than almost any of his former coaches, having given the striker his debut at Inter when he was 17 and won the Premier League with him at Manchester City, but the Italy coach has warned his former protege not to expect any favours.
"I love him, but I can't do anything for him," Mancini told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "It's all about how much he wants it." Balotelli was not included in the squad announced by Mancini last week for Italy's forthcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers against Armenia and Finland.
This, of course, is not the first time that Balotelli has gone in search of a fresh start, but after a three-year exile in France, he is convinced that Brescia is the right place to be.
"It seems that you are more afraid of my failure than I am," he told reporters at his unveiling. "I'm not afraid—zero. I'm fine, I'm serene. This is my home."
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