He is labelled as a failed wunderkind – a boy who had the world at his feet and threw it away due to his neglectful and irresponsible character.
During his Inter days, José Mourinho and captain Javier Zanetti repeatedly questioned his commitment to training. Whilst at Manchester City, he had altercations with Jérôme Boateng and Roberto Mancini, threw darts at a youth player and launched a firework inside his home.
He was also the 2010 Golden Boy winner, who joked that he didn’t know second-placed Jack Wilshere. He possessed a bruising arrogance that was backed up by a footballing exuberance that could have dominated Europe for years.
But, to understand his fluctuation between an alarming unprofessional and an unequivocal genius it goes beyond the beautiful game. He was fighting a relentless battle on and off the pitch that wasn’t concerned with what he could do with a football, but with his identity and ethnicity.
Ostracised and disrespected, the Italian’s life has been different from any other footballer from his country.
Mario Balotelli, the first black player to ever represent the Azzurri, whose marriage to football faced the most turbulent, hateful and unfair journey.
8th November 2007. Bramall Lane. 18,741 spectators, including Pele, gathered to watch a friendly between Inter Milan and Sheffield FC, to commemorate the eighth-tier outfit’s 150th anniversary as the world’s oldest football club.
17-year-old Balotelli started the match. He mercilessly taunted the non-league side and scored twice. His second, an effortless body faint before a thunderous strike from 25 yards out that nestled in the bottom corner. The world’s first glimpse of Super Mario and his soaring potential.
The introduction to first-team football with Inter on a cold and unforgiving Yorkshire evening set the tone for Balotelli to run riot in his early days.
This prompted manager Mancini to chuck Balotelli into the mix for his first competitive start for the Nerazzurri, just one month later in a Coppa Italia match against Reggina, yielding the same outcome, as he scored twice. He repeated the feat in the next round against Juventus. Scoring two goals in the Derby d’Italia was the stuff of dreams for any striker, which a nonchalant teenage Balotelli had achieved in the infancy of his career.
His first Serie A goal quickly followed in April 2008, and he became Inter’s youngest Champions League goal scorer in November, aged 18 years and 85 days.
There was an air of inevitability surrounding Balotelli’s younger days. An inevitability of brilliance, as his career was moving at a million miles per hour.
He was a young, hungry and dynamic striker that typified the perfect blend of physicality and raw ability, who was ruffling the feathers of defenders across the country.
But the crowning moment of Balotelli’s early blooming career came earlier that year, and it didn’t directly happen on a football pitch. He was born in Italy to Ghanaian parents, but was fostered by the Balotelli family when he was just three years old. Italian law states that foreigners who are born in the country can’t be awarded citizenship until their eighteenth birthday.
“I feel Italian. I will forever play with the national team.”
The glittering start to his Inter career earned him his dream. He spoke of representing Italy as a privilege and couldn’t hide his excitement. The rising star of the European stage had been fully committed to the Azzurri since birth.
Balotelli intended for his heartfelt words to signal his admiration for his birth country, but instead, it kickstarted a racially-charged purge that stopped at nothing in its attempts to delegitimise his Italian identity.
The discriminatory and judgemental ignorance of Italian football
April 2009. Once again, Balotelli netted against Juve. He had become the Old Lady’s kryptonite.
However, in an age when Ronaldinho had received a standing ovation from Real Madrid fans after a masterclass at the Bernabeu, Balotelli’s treatment was at the opposite end of the scale. The Juve fans, stirred by yet another stellar Mario performance, began chants of “there are no black Italians.” It quickly became clear that this wasn’t simple club rivalry, but was a political stab, aimed at his formal passage into the national team.
It was reported there were repetitions of this chant during Juventus’ 2-1 home defeat against Catania in December, a game in which Balotelli wasn’t playing.
This ignited a fire that pursued Balotelli throughout his career – his talent was dismissed by a discriminatory and judgemental ignorance of certain ‘fans’, who failed to come to terms with his race.
Balotelli represented a unique and unprecedented character – a black Italian footballer.
This abuse was designed to make an explicit distinction between Balotelli and Italian identity.
Italy’s empire was brief and small. In Africa, they occupied Somalia, Ethiopia, and Libya, and were also awarded jurisdiction of British Somaliland, western Egypt and Tunisia during the Second World War.
However, control of these nations was lost when the conflict ended so Italy’s post-war immigration was sparse. Substantial migration only occurred at the end of the 21st century so the concept of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society is an alien concept to many natives, which has triggered a vociferous wave of racist abuse.
Instead of accepting, nurturing and supporting a troublesome character who was prone to disciplinary issues, rival fans began to completely separate themselves from Balotelli as they held an unshakeable belief that his race contradicted their cultural tradition.
On his second ever start for the Azzurri in 2010 against Romania, Balotelli was subjected to racist taunts from a section of the Italian fans, who attempted to raise a banner that read: “No to a multi-ethnic national team.”
International football should supposedly represent a united nation – a collective that is fighting for success on the world stage. But he was the victim of a backwards culture and critically viewed as an imposter.
One of the most publicised cases surrounding Balotelli’s treatment occurred in November 2019 whilst he was at Brescia. The striker was hounded by a portion of Hellas Verona fans and smashed the ball into the crowd. He tried to walk off the pitch but was persuaded to stay on. To conclude this debacle he scored, as his side lost 2-1.
One month later, three leaders of the extremist-right Forza Nuova [FN] political party displayed a banner outside Juventus’ Allianz Arena aimed at the Brescia target man.
It read, “Mario you’re right, you’re an African.”
The FN members responsible were accused of encouraging racist sentiment and issued a lifelong ban from all of Italy’s sporting arenas.
The anti-immigration and racist rhetoric of small groups within the right wing had rippled into football stadiums. In Italy, politics and football had been at an agonising and confrontational crossroads for years, and Balotelli’s citizenship ignited another painful reminder of this ongoing issue.
Matteo Salvini, an Italian Politician and leader of right-wing Lega Nord, responded to the scenes in Verona. He felt the behaviour should be condemned, which it was, as the leader of the Verona ultras was banned from attending football for 11 years. However, he added that this abuse of Balotelli was “the least of his concerns.”
“Poor, innocent Balotelli, poor star. A person so staid and polite. I condemn every gesture of violence and racism, but I prefer others in the field to Balotelli,” he said. “Italy has other problems.”
Although Salvini highlighted that he condemned racism, his sarcastic referral to Balotelli’s lack of ‘innocence’ can be latched onto and projects an extremely dangerous message that racism is unimportant and somewhat tolerated. Even when Balotelli emerged as the new kid on the block – a fresh, free-scoring and carefree teenager at Inter, he was still subjected to abhorrent abuse. The notion that a player’s personality could elicit racist abuse is damaging and isn’t a strong enough stance against this recurring problem.
To also say that “Italy has other problems” suggests that the issue isn’t prioritised – a lackadaisical and lazy statement that provides no hope for any black footballers in Italy that change is on the horizon.
Serie A acted and launched a new anti-racism campaign, which included ‘no to racism’ posters of three chimpanzees. The anti-discrimination body FARE responded: “These creations are an outrage; they will be counter-productive and continue the dehumanisation of people of African heritage.”
Even supposed attempts of ‘support’ aimed to take a swipe at Balotelli and other black footballers. Romelu Lukaku, Chris Smalling and Kalidou Koulibaly – three far more consummate professionals than Balotelli – had faced similar treatment. It wasn’t the striker’s provocative personality but a far wider, deep-rooted poison that Italian football authorities have drastically failed to find an antidote for.
The uncoachable brilliance of Balotelli
Yet, against a constant backdrop of discrimination, Balotelli still produced flickers of uncoachable brilliance.
His time at Man City was the most productive of his career and equally projected each side of Balotelli’s mercurial persona.
During his first season, he was awarded man of the match in Man City’s FA Cup triumph over Stoke – their first trophy in 35 years.
He scored twice during City’s 6-1 demolition of Manchester United and unveiled his infamous ‘Why Always Me?’ t-shirt in his celebration. However, this campaign quickly turned sour and after his fourth red of the 2011/12 season against Arsenal, Mancini declared that Balotelli wouldn’t play for City again. But the manager couldn’t resist throwing in the Italian for their title decider on the final game of the season.
City were drawing 2-2 to QPR but needed to win, otherwise their fierce local rivals would take the league to Old Trafford. The denounced Mario was serenaded into Premier League folklore when he provided the assist for Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp title winning goal. A ceremonial moment, the decisive knockout that ended City’s 44-year wait for the title, set-up by Balotelli.
When he returned to the Serie A and signed for AC Milan in 2013, he registered 12 goals in 13 games – a dream comeback to the league that had tried so desperately to tear him down But what remains extremely telling of his character is that he still retained immense pride to represent his country. His finest international performances came in Euro 2012 and his two goals in Italy’s semi-final victory over Germany epitomised Balotelli in his most devastating, effervescent and outrageous form.
The second – Balotelli sprang Phillip Lahm’s attempted offside trap and lashed home an unsavable strike that rocketed into the top corner. Italy were humbled in the final by Spain, but Balotelli was the joint-top scorer and named in the team of the tournament – another pivotal indication that he was an invaluable asset to the Azzurri.
Enigmatic, eccentric, frustrating, but equally loveable and irresistibly talented
Mancini, who had the debatable pleasure of managing Balotelli in Italy and England, made a poignant reminder of the forward’s irrepressible talent: “If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault, because he has everything.”
The former Golden Boy is now 32 years old and playing in the Swiss League. Everyone agrees he hasn’t fulfilled his potential and it proposes the burning question – Why? Was it his poor attitude? Did his love of the game most likely dwindle as the racism persisted? That is something only he can answer.
To dissect the minefield of Balotelli’s personality and lack of discipline is a different question altogether.
Italy’s only black footballer was a victim of persistent racist abuse that gained vicious momentum over the years, but in the midst of the chaos and hardship – he never changed.
Never far from the spotlight, for either good or bad reasons, is he an iconic symbol of the modern era, in a sporting, social and political sense.
Enigmatic, eccentric, frustrating, but equally loveable and irresistibly talented, Mario Balotelli undoubtedly left his mark on the Serie A, Premier League and Ligue 1, as well as being one of Italy’s most eye-catching performers since his debut – something the racists can never take away from him.