During Italy’s recent under-21 European Championship match against Sweden, one of the most exciting young talents in the world showed why he is considered so by opening the scoring for Italy early on with a stunning curled effort. However, just 15 minutes later he was trudging off the pitch after being dismissed for kicking out at an opponent. Welcome to the talent and suspect temperament of Mario Balotelli.
The game against Sweden perhaps perfectly demonstrated what Balotelli is all about. His goal was taken with the maturity of an accomplished striker, firstly pulling wide of his marker before calmly bringing the ball under control and setting it up to curl into the far corner from outside the area. The game was turned in just three touches from the Inter wonder kid, and in those five seconds, Balotelli illustrated the raw talent and technical ability that he possesses, and the reasons why he is known as ‘Super Mario’ amongst the Italian media. His red card however demonstrated the other side to his game. After petulantly kicking out at a Swedish player already on the floor, he sat on the ground before slowly rising and walking off the pitch, all without any sign of remorse. His minor league Coach, Michele Cavalli, who coached him at 12-years-old admitted that Balotelli was a difficult youngster to control: “I have to add that he has a difficult character and this is something which needs to be dealt with.”
The son of Ghanaian immigrants, Balotelli was born in Palermo to Thomas and Rose Barwuah. They then entrusted him at the age of three to the Balotelli family and it is through them that he has gained eligibility represent Italy. His football career started at Serie C1 side Lurnezzane when he was only 15-years-old and whilst there he made two appearances for the club before being snapped up by Italian giants Inter. And it is with the Nerazzurri that he has developed into the talented teenager that he is today, firstly rising through the youth and under-20 teams before breaking into the Inter first team at the tender age of 17 on December 16, 2007. In the following couple of weeks after his first team debut, Balotelli ensured the whole Italy knew his name. On December 19, he featured from the start against Reggina in a Coppa Italia match and scored two goals in a 4-1 win, before later and more notably, repeating the feat again to help Inter beat and knock bitter rivals Juventus out of Italy’s premier cup competition. Such was Balotelli’s performance in the victory over the Bianconeri that Inter owner Massimo Moratti was prompted to declare after the match: “Who needs Pato when we have Super Mario?”
Balotelli displayed flashes of brilliance in the rare opportunities that followed in the first team, finishing with three goals in 11 appearances in Serie A, and he was rewarded with a lucrative new contract at the end of the 2007/08 season to ward off interest from clubs both inside and outside of the peninsula. The 2008/09 campaign saw Balotelli become more involved under new Coach Jose Mourinho, and also more prolific as he ended the season with eight goals in 22 Serie A appearances (15 starts). Yet it has also seen his personality become increasingly established on his footballing identity. On numerous occasions last season, Balotelli openly demanded more playing time despite competing with the likes of established forwards Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Adriano, Julio Cruz and Hernan Crespo for a starting berth. This was even after being criticised for his lack of effort shown in training, by both Mourinho and club captain Javier Zanetti. It is through this confident and arrogant persona that just as Balotelli has the ability to amaze, he also has the ability to frustrate. Mourinho perhaps encapsulated the problem of Balotelli when he stated earlier this year: “If he trained at just 50 per cent then he would be one of the best in the world. However, he doesn’t even train at 25 per cent.”
Some may argue that this self-assured arrogance is what makes him the promising talent that everyone agrees he is. Take such a trait away from players such as Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo and these same people will argue they would not be the great players they are today. Indeed, Balotelli recently said of the current FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner, Ronaldo: “Two years ago he gave me his shirt, but one day he will ask for mine.” Whilst many criticise him for being arrogant or disrespectful, Balotelli continues to impress whenever he is given an opportunity, such as becoming Inter’s youngest ever goal scorer in the Champions League when he netted against Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta in November, 2008. It is his behaviour surrounding his brilliance though which gives cause for the greatest concern. For example in Inter’s game against Chievo in May this year he scored a wonderful volleyed goal, yet instead of running wild and celebrating like any other 18-year-old would do in the same circumstances, he simply turned emotionless to the Chievo fans and gestured for them to be quiet. But then Super Mario is no ordinary 18-year-old.
This is arguably why many believe he is not ready for first team action with the Azzurri despite putting in a number impressive performances for the under-21s, such as scoring twice in their 3-1 Euro qualifying win over Israel to seal their qualification to the finals. He has not endeared himself to many fans across Italy. This is even more apparent when, during the match against Juventus in April this year, Balotelli was singled out for racist abuse, even when fellow black players such as Patrick Vieira and Sulley Muntari were on the pitch. He must be careful not to become Antonio Cassano’s prodigy. Fanantonio was once considered the great hope of Italian football and many are calling for his re-inclusion in the Italy squad, but where Balotelli differs and importantly so, is that he doesn’t have childlike tantrums, but instead mature self-confidence. Hopefully this will provoke him to become the type of player the Azzurri have needed since Francesco Totti’s retirement. Let’s hope in the years to come we will be talking about Balotelli’s undoubted talents rather than his suspect temperament.
Azzurrini Future Stars