A few days ago, the Daily Mail released photos of Mario Balotelli posing with his girlfriend Fanny Neguesha at Lake Garda in Italy’s north. You haven’t seen the pictures yet?
After you have finished staring at his girlfriend and done your customary Google Image search (oh, don’t lie! I know you have), allow me to bring you back to the matter of hand. Thinking aloud for a moment here, I cannot help but wonder what the striker is doing hugging his Belgian girl sweetly on the shores of the lake.
There’s no pictures of him flinging dynamite into Italy’s largest lake, no long-lens snapshots of him smoking shisha on the lake banks. All there is, apart from the the standard holiday montage, is one of him in some rather short black shorts. What we see of Balotelli in those images is a perfectly normal holiday that any footballer would embark on once he had finished his club duties and in the case of Balotelli, national service.
But Balotelli doesn’t do normal, does he? Less than a year ago, the English tabloids would lie in wait, waiting to capture his next goof-up for all the world to see. Judging from the number of exposés he did receive, they did not have to wait for long between one misdemeanour and the next. There was always a fresh supply of ‘Balotellisms’ with which to furnish the media machines, whether it was Mario and his friends setting his house on fire after lighting up a few firecrackers and his inability to wear a training bib while warming up for Manchester City to his very frequent arguments with Roberto Mancini both on and off the pitch and his now-famous “Why Always Me” gesture which you can now actually buy on line.
Surely, this isn’t the same Mario Balotelli who left Manchester City last January to play for AC Milan in his homeland? Well, yes and no. Balotelli does not have a twin (he does have a brother, though) who has taken his place with Miss Neguesha. The difference between now and then is that he has grown up.
And because of that, he now stands on the cusp of achieving the greatness that people predicted he would when he began playing football in 1998.
But while he has changed, how has that happened? This was after all a striker even the famed Jose Mourinho could not tame during his time at Inter Milan, a player who had been told to grow up by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a man who was treated the same way Mancini would treat one of his own children when he was at City.
“I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head. There are different ways to help a guy like Mario. I don’t speak with him every day, otherwise I would need a psychologist, but I speak with him because I don’t want him to lose his quality. If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault, because he has everything. Mario can be one of the top players in Europe. I don’t want him to lose his talent.”
– Roberto Mancini
The problem, as it always is in modern-day football, stems from various sources.
Athletes are born, not made, it is said and unfortunately for Balotelli, he was born to a Ghanaian mother in a nation where racism still prevails. Balotelli had experienced it several times in the past when he was playing for both Inter Milan and Italy. Small wonder then that he was mistreated just because he was different, and acted out the way he did.
Then there is his upbringing. His biological parents could not afford to keep him and that meant he was fostered with Italian parents when he was three years old. Being separated from one’s parents is akin to a nail being torn from its finger and in Balotelli’s case, that wound was made even deeper when his biological parents only asked for him back when he attained fame and fortune. Like Frodo Baggins’s knife wound at Weathertop in The Lord of the Rings, some wounds never heal and we cannot fully understand the pain he does feel.
The third point is the rather harsh spotlight that football casts on upcoming prodigies. You add the above two to his constant tracking by the media and their expectations in Balotelli to perform when given the opportunity to do so and the pressure from both within and without does make it a bit too much to bear. Here is a footballer who is battling with his own demons (as he has for the majority of his life) and the last thing he needs is the constant scrutiny on him both on the pitch and off it, which does at times feel like you’ve got no privacy whatsoever.
Coming to England, Balotelli had already built up a reputation as a troubled protege and the media were quick to capitalise on that. He was the perfect personality for the press in the UK to sell papers. People wanted to see what trouble Balotelli had gotten himself into and news stands were often frequented by those who wanted to see what the press had said about him, almost none of which was good. The press were waiting expectantly with vicarious pleasure for him to trip up and seeing himself on the front pages of England’s newspapers was only added fuel to the fire.
”There are certain people who really don’t know how to make money in life and therefore try to take advantage of others. Gossip is one thing, but to invent stories is close to criminal. There are more important things than gossip. Many stories are invented about me, too many stories, almost everyone uses me, and I’d say about 0.01 percent of the gossip is true.”
– Mario Balotelli
Therein lay a vicious circle where Balotelli seeing himself in the papers provoked him further. It then got to such a point where even the most mundane, everyday activities such as going shopping or just taking a walk around town were grossly sensationalised as the press increased the glare on the spotlight that, truth be told, was becoming too harsh for the striker to handle. It was only obvious then that he would lash out.
Sadly for him, though, those who would get caught in the crossfire were his team mates at Manchester City. People tend to forget so quickly that Balotelli was just a 20-year-old when he moved to England. Moving to a foreign land with no family to look out for him for the first time at such a young age can be hard for everybody and the emotional and psychological baggage that Balotelli carried with him only made it worse.
Plus, he never got to see much game time at City, which meant that regarding the player, there was not much the press could write about him. By the time he had established himself in the City ranks, his reputation for being a maverick meant any goals he did score on the pitch would always be recorded with a footnote which attempted to demonstrate that he was a volatile person and finding the back of the net was only meant to be a flash in the pan, if you believe the English press.
All that changed when he moved to AC Milan.
In his first eight games for Milan since moving back to Italy, Balotelli scored eight goals in ten games (two of them for Italy). Balotelli had always regularly chipped in with goals, it was just that he was never afforded a string of games to extend his scoring streak, which in a way actually shows what a prolific striker he actually is. He ended the season with 12 goals in 13 games to take AC Milan to third in Serie A.
“She is determined, confident and generous. In a short space of time she found herself in sync with me. I could spend my whole life with someone like this. Thanks to Fanny I have rediscovered the balance that I need in my work.”
– Mario Balotelli on his girlfriend Fanny Neguesha
At Euro 2012, Daniele de Rossi had told him to grow up. A year later, back in Italian blue, he showed the world he had done just that. At the Confederations Cup in Brazil, Balotelli was at times unplayable. Goals against Mexico and Japan showed just how good he was and the passion and maturity he showed while playing for his country made him worthy of respect from football fans the world over. Had he not suffered an injury, he would have surely played a bigger part in South America.
He credits his girlfriend Fanny Neguesha for the new-found balance in his life, but that balance would have only come in the first place if he was ready for it. Balotelli learned much during his time at City and he is now putting that to good use. His friends and family have always said that he is a wonderful person and have always stood by him.
And soon enough, Mario Balotelli is going to prove all of them right.