Speaking after a postgame conference at the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, Mario Balotelli said, “I’m not a Super Mario or a Stupid Mario. I’m just Mario.” But being just Mario isn’t always simple. Only 22 and already a striker for Italy’s national team and for English Premier League champions Manchester City, the player is acknowledged as one of the world’s great sporting talents. Yet the young Italian is often as discussed for his volatile temperament as for his playing prowess and goal-scoring flair. And, as the first player of African descent to represent Italy at major tournaments, he has become both a target of racism and a symbol of Italy’s transition to a more diverse, internationalized country.
TIME’s Europe editor Catherine Mayer and Rome-based correspondent Stephan Faris traveled to Manchester for a rare interview with the mercurial star (read their story here). They found a clever, engaging, thoughtful adult, but one in whom the impact of childhood turbulence still seems clearly visible. TIME spoke with Mayer to get the story behind the story.
(MORE: Why Always Mario?)
Why did you choose to profile Balotelli?
Stephan and I have been discussing for a long time the difficulties encountered by black Italians in convincing their white counterparts that they are in fact Italian. Italy is a country I visit regularly and you are very aware, especially in contrast to a country like Britain where there is a substantial black middle class, of how black Italians can be marginalized. Balotelli was originally one of the names that came up in this discussion. He is somebody whom I have found endlessly fascinating not just as a sportsman but also as a character: he’s not just a cipher for these issues of race but very multilayered. So the idea then emerged: Why not profile Balotelli and get to some of these issues?
How did you persuade him to do this interview?
I had long conversations with people at Manchester City and also contacted his agent, in order to discuss what it was we wanted to do. The final and most important meeting was with Balotelli himself. Manchester is legendary for its rainfall, but it was one of the wettest days ever. They allowed me to watch him train, which is rare for journalists to be allowed to do. I was sitting inside looking like a drowned rat, and he came in looking extraordinarily glamorous with these beautiful diamond earrings he wears.
For somebody so flamboyant he is startlingly shy, so when I first met him, his reluctance to do this was very marked. I would say that I didn’t believe 100% until I was actually sitting down with him on the day that the interview was going to happen.
(MORE: Scoring the Goals That Sank Germany, Balotelli Says It Loud: He’s Black, Italian and Proud)
Did he speak much about his tendency to compromise his talents?
He did. During the interview he switched back and forth between English and Italian. His English is good but there were certain moments where he wanted to express something with a level of subtlety he couldn’t manage in English so he would then go into Italian. He talked a lot about his life. He does have an image of himself as someone who knows what he needs to do to succeed and to play well — but he may not always acknowledge the extent to which he does get in the way of himself.
But he is very much more perceptive and clever than you might assume from the very brash public image. He is also — and this is something that really tugs the heartstrings about him — incredibly serious and wants to explain things and wants to understand things. He breaks into this grin that is one of the most amazing phenomena – you understand where his magnetism comes from!
What did he tell you about his experience of racism in Italy?
He gave really quite a complex set of answers that I wish we had another set of several thousand words for. One of his interesting views on it was a distinction between racism, by which he meant hostility, and a kind of ignorance. Much of the experience he described was really about people not particularly being hostile toward him but just making a series of false assumptions about him and other black people. Since becoming famous, he has now encountered some very active hostility too.
(MORE: Racism and Euro 2012: Football’s Ongoing Struggle)
And he talks about experiencing that hostility in Italy rather than in the U.K.?
There are many things he does not like about the U.K., however diplomatic he was about that side of things, but he clearly thinks that Britain is a paradise compared with Italy in terms of attitudes to race.
Did he seem worried by his public image?
He is aware of it. He wants his mother to be proud of him, he wants the feedback from other people she talks to in Brescia [Italy], he wants that to be positive, and I think he would very much like to be the Mario he sees in his head — the one who behaves on the pitch and is brilliant at scoring goals and all of that. But he did also say he doesn’t like having the expectation of being a role model loaded onto him. I would say he has mixed feelings about it.
(MORE: In Italy, Racial Tensions Explode into Violence)
What are your own links to this story and to Manchester?
I’m American-born but I spent a chunk of teenage years at high school in Manchester. People defined themselves at school by whether they were City or United supporters. As it happens, I am married to a Man U supporter. I did admit that to City so that they didn’t think I was a spy in the camp.
In terms of the history of football in Manchester, a lot of this I know in my bones, it is not something I had to research particularly. It is also another reason why the story appealed to me so much. The transition of a club in the doldrums to a team that beat United to the League title last season, though deeply painful to my husband, was absolutely one of the great dramas in sport. It was spectacular. The fact that City really has come from such a lowly status, and the fact that their closest rivals were United really did make it fabulous.
How much of an impact has City’s investment had on Manchester?
It’s very obvious how recent the investment is to City itself. For example their media center is this hilarious little building which has a toilet that stinks to hell. The only facility we had for doing our photo shoot and our video was in this little hut that stank of toilet.
There is already a lot of change in the area around the stadium. Manchester is certainly feeling the economic turbulence of the last few years. But that part of Manchester that has historically been so poor is actually doing better as a direct result of City’s money. The impact of now having these two huge teams in one city makes the city itself a fascinating study.
MORE: Manchester (Dis)United: Why Can’t City and United Just Get Along?