Mario Balotelli makes headlines as easily as he makes goals. Folks can’t get enough of the Manchester City striker's professional or personal life. Reporting from the 21 year old's native Italy, our correspondent looks at some of the twists and turns that brought him to play with the Azzurri in tonight’s Euro 2012 match against England.
Scene 1: Euro 2012. Italy-Ireland. 90th minute. With a beautiful overhead kick, Balotelli scores the Azzurri’s second goal. And Italy's in the quarterfinals. But no smiling, cheering or embracing his team-mates. Super Mario is angry. He starts to point a finger at the Irish stands, wanting to shout something. Defender Leo Bonucci puts his hand on Balotelli's mouth to stop him.
Scene 2: Auschwitz. Two days before the start of Euro 2012. The Italian team pays a visit to the former concentration camp in the south of Poland. Everyone is struck by what he sees or hears. Balotelli, more than the rest, so say journalists who were there. He sits down, all by himself, on the train tracks and stares silently ahead. A while later, he tells his team-mates about a box of letters that his Jewish adoptive mother kept underneath her bed. He had never told anyone.
Mario Balotelli was born in Palermo, Sicily, on 12 August 1990. Mario Barwuah, as he was then known, was the first son of Thomas and Rose Barwuah, Ghanaian immigrants who had come to Italy a couple years before. Before long, the Barwuahs discovered that Mario had an intestine malfunction and would have to undergo a series of surgeries. “The doctors were worried that he would not survive and we even had him baptised in hospital in case he died,” his father said in a 2010 interview with the Daily Mail.
In the spring of 1992, when Balotelli’s condition improved, the Barwuahs moved to Brescia, an industrial city in the north of Italy, not far from Milan. They lived in a small, poorly maintained flat with another African family. When they applied at the social services for another apartment, pointing out Mario's health condition, it was suggested that the boy be put in a foster home.
That's how Mario Barwuah came into contact with the Balotellis, a white family who lived in a villa in a small nearby village. At first, he stayed at the Balotellis during the week and returned to his family on weekends. But after a while things changed. Mario started to treat his parents with indifference. Ultimately, he took his weekday family's surname.
At least that's Thomas and Rose Barwuah's story, a story they told a local paper in summer 2010. Their son was not amused. In a reaction on his website, he stated if “I wouldn't have become Mario Balotelli, they wouldn't be interested in me”, and “I don't want these people to talk about me”.
Talk of the town
Everyone else seems to want to talk about Balotelli, though. It’s hard not to.
He has incredible football skills – at age 15, becoming the youngest player ever in Serie C, the Italian third division. Plus, there’s what some see as his “crazy” lifestyle, his ever-changing hairdo is just the beginning. He’s been known for parking his Maserati all over Manchester, nearly setting his apartment on fire and letting fighting with his girlfriend get so bad the police have to be called.
But his temper on the pitch makes headlines, too. Balotelli received four red cards and 21 yellow cards in two seasons in the Premiere League. In fact, Balotelli is not very popular with team-mates, wherever he plays. The Azzurri are tiring of his attitude. Even Italy’s polite, normally calm manager, Cesare Prandelli, is starting to lose patience. After his reaction to the Ireland goal, Prandelli asked whether he had a problem with him. “No, Coach, I have a problem with everyone,” said Balotelli.
People who really know him, such as his Manchester City manager, Roberto Mancini, praise Balotelli. “He really is not a bad kid,” he told the BBC after this season's Arsenal match where he got a red card.
Some might say that being a black kid in an all white, and often openly racist, environment turned Balotelli into a defensive – if not angry – person. Irish fans during the Euro 2012 match made monkey noises when he entered the pitch. One can’t help but think this reminded him of the many times he was insulted, on and off the field, because of his skin colour. That winning goal well may have been a kick of revenge.
No doubt many will be watching – and analyzing – Super Mario’s next moves when Italy plays England tonight.