He’s utterly brilliant when he turns it on, quite possibly the most dangerous striker in Europe precisely because he’s so unpredictable. But Mario Balotelli’s also a veritable “character” in a game that no longer really encourages players to express their personalities on or off the field, and also a highly intelligent but deeply troubled young man, at odds — for obvious reasons — with the society that created him. You try being a black man in Italy — not an immigrant, but a black Italian, because your Ghanaian parents were forced by circumstance to put you up for adoption, and you had to learn that when you expressed your talents on a football field, a substantial section of the crowd would make monkey noises and throw bananas at you.
So Balotelli acts up. And speaks his mind. And drives sports commentators crazy with his antics, and his attitude. Asked about the prospect of racial abuse at Euro 2012, he made clear that if he encountered any in the street, he’d end up in prison, because he’d kill the perpetrator. Balotelli is angry and intelligent, a player of rare gifts that, if harnessed by a coach willing to understand him — like Manchester City’s Roberto Mancini, whom he cites as a father figure — will deliver that decisive edge. But his Manchester City teammates will be the first to tell you just how exasperating Balotelli can be, because each match is often a contest between himself and his demons and doubters, with his teammates a cast of faceless extras.
Still, such characters are rare in football, and in most sports. He reminds me of a young Muhammad Ali: brash, confident, feeling his way in a world whose rules he believes are stacked against him. This is not to say he’ll turn into a political activist or that he won’t flame out. But there was an emblematic moment in the breathtaking goal he scored against Ireland — a goal that very few players could have scored. Immediately afterwards, as he began berating either his coach or the media, his teammate, Leonardo Bonucci, ran up to hug him in congratulations — and also to firmly clamp a hand over his mouth. Balotelli gets a bum rap from the commentators he seems to annoy to no end — just like Ali did early in his career. He’s only 21, and he hasn’t flamed out. He played a key role in Manchester City’s English premiership title (the first time they’ve topped the standings since 1968), and remains a key figure in Italy’s prospects for reviving the fortunes of its national team. The haters are waiting for you to fail, Mario. Don’t give ’em the satisfaction!