With his arrogant swagger, penchant for ridiculous luxury vehicles and mohawk of many colors, Mario Balotelli is every inch the quintessential 21st century soccer star. Fresh controversy was already surrounding the 22-year-old even before he put pen to paper for AC Milan on Thursday in a a four-and-a-half-year, $30 million deal. Fans in the northern Italian city threw bottles and let off flares outside the restaurant where he was dining, leading police to retaliate with tear gas and one officer to be taken to hospital with head wounds. Such bedlam comes as little surprise to anyone who has followed the enigmatic striker’s chequered time in England, which came to a close, for the moment at least, when he was sold by league champions Manchester City in the January transfer window.
Mercurial strikers have always been hot favorites in the Premier League. Eric Cantona was famous for unparalleled genius on the pitch but also his violent temper. Paulo Di Canio was similarly capable of goals of breathtaking beauty combined with acts of spontaneous self-destruction. Balotelli slots comfortably into this group. When he signed for Manchester City for roughly $20 million in August 2010, the Sicilian, who has Ghanaian heritage, was still largely unproven. Rumors circulated of a troubled genius in need of careful nurturing to realize his tremendous potential. “I think that Balotelli could be as good as [Fernando] Torres and even better than him,” said Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini upon his signing.
(MORE: Why Always Mario?)
That Balotelli was an uncommonly gifted sportsman was never in doubt. Having signed for Inter Milan as a 16-year-old, he was called up to the senior Ghana squad five days before his 17th birthday, only to turn down the offer in the belief that he would one day represent Italy, the country of his birth. Tall and athletic, he would bully defenders with his daunting strength before bamboozling them with his close ball control and lethal finishing. These attributes saw him become a regular for Inter in the 2008/9 season. However, even at such a tender age, controversy was never far behind. He was subjected to racist chanting from opposition supporters and fell foul of coach Jose Mourinho, as well as his own fans, for a perceived lack of effort. Eventually Inter chose to cash in on their troubled young prodigy with Manchester City waiting in the wings. And it was not long into his tenure that eyebrows were once again raised. Within days the league’s new wonderkid managed to crash his Audi R8 coupé on the way to training. When the police officer who arrived at the scene enquired why a 20-year-old was carrying £5,000 ($8,000) cash in his back pocket, Balotelli simply replied, “Because I am rich.”
He scored his first two Premier League goals in the 2–0 away win against West Brom on Nov. 7, 2010, but his performance was marred by a red card following a scuffle with Youssuf Mulumbu. And this tendency to mix the sublime with the ridiculous became increasingly acute over the months that followed. Nevertheless, Balotelli’s first season in England was a qualified success. Apart from a valuable contribution of 10 goals in 28 appearances, he also helped the Sky Blues lift their first silverware for 35 years with a man of the match performance in the 1-0 FA Cup Final defeat of Stoke City. And there were more glorious highs to come, such as his two goals as Manchester City thrashed their illustrious neighbors Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford in October 2011, but also laughable lows such as almost setting his house ablaze through an impromptu 1 a.m. fireworks display on the morning of that same match. No wonder he unveiled his infamous “Why always me?” T-shirt after scoring his first goal against United. Later that week, Balotelli became Greater Manchester’s ambassador for firework safety. You couldn’t make it up.
Following his needless sending off for a chest-high lunge on Goran Popov during a Europa League match against Dynamo Kiev in March 2011, “Mad Mario” made the headlines again when allegedly caught throwing darts at youth team players because “he was bored.” While such unruly behavior was hardly atypical, one would be wrong to think that hooliganism was the young athlete’s defining quality. Mario has always been more complicated than that. When asked by a fan for his autograph outside City’s training ground, Balotelli enquired why the youngster was not in school. Upon hearing that he didn’t attend because a bully was picking on him, the aggrieved soccer player immediately drove both the fan and his mother to inform the headmaster about the problem, and even mediated a reconciliatory meeting between the boy and his tormentor.
And like all good Italians, Mario loves his mamma — which is not to say that he always carries out her instructions to the letter. When Silvia Balotelli asked her adoptive son to pop out for an iron and cleaning products so she could give his bachelor pad a quick going over, he later returned with a lorry boasting a trampoline, Scalextric set, a pair of Vespa scooters and ping pong table — but unfortunately none of the items she had requested.
But despite such jovial idiosyncrasy in his daily life, on the pitch Mr Hyde has always been lurking around the corner. In January 2012, Balotelli came on as a substitute against Tottenham Hotspur and scored the winner from the penalty spot in injury time to earn his side a crucial 3-2 victory. However, he should not have even been on the pitch after a callous stamp on the head of Scott Parker that subsequently earned the Palermo-born player a four-match suspension. During discussions prior to the 2012 European Championship of the possibility of racial abuse being hurled at players, Balotelli was quoted threatening to “kill” anyone who threw a banana at him. Incidentally, he went on to become one of the players of the tournament, scoring both goals in Italy’s 2-0 semi-final win over Germany, which reminded the watching world of his sublime talent.
Nevertheless, it appeared that Roberto Mancini’s patience had already run out with his young charge at the end of last season, of which Balotelli missed 11 matches through suspension. The City manager suggested that the striker was no longer in his plans following yet another grievous horror tackle, this time on Arsenal’s Alex Song, but then brought him on as a late substitute in the last game of the season against Queens Park Rangers. Balotelli proved his worth with the assist for fellow striker Sergio Agüero to seal a dramatic 3-2 victory in the 94th minute to give the Eastlands club their first league title since 1968 by virtue of goal difference over their bitter city rivals. It was also his most productive season to date with 17 goals from 32 appearances. It appeared that all was forgiven until the most recent training ground bust-up just after New Year that saw Balotelli and his manager having to be dragged apart by teammates.
So what next for Super Mario? Judging by his last stint in Italy, where Mourinho dubbed him “unmanageable,” more fireworks, if you will, may be looming. Regardless, Balotelli’s desire to play for his new club didn’t seem to be in doubt. As far back as September 2010, just weeks after signing for City, Balotelli sang the AC Milan anthem and shouted “Forza Milan!” from his hospital window in Pavia, northern Italy, where he was undergoing tests for a knee injury. And he had already caused outrage amongst Inter fans earlier that year when he appeared on live TV sporting the shirt of their cross-city rivals while still at Inter. “I’d wanted to play for Milan for such a long time,” he said on Wednesday. “Obviously I played for other teams and couldn’t come. But when there was the chance, I ran.”
Will Balotelli now grow up? Much will depend upon his propensity to get wound up with the slightest provocation, as opponents target his combustive nature in a deliberate attempt to seek an advantage. While it may be difficult to answer, “Why always me?” the Premier League will be a duller place without him.