Mario Balotelli is, and always has been, a reflection of his surroundings. Born in Palermo on the Italian island of Sicily in 1990, his Ghanaian immigrant parents moved north to Brescia almost immediately. Struggling with health issues and stuck in cramped living conditions, the Italian social services recommended Mario was fostered and aged just three he became a Balotelli after being informally adopted by Francesco and Silvio.
From there his prodigious and precocious footballing talents took him from his new home to Inter, making his first team debut almost four years ago and going on to play 86 times for the Milanese giants. In that time he scored 28 goals and won three Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and of course the 2010 Champions League. He became the youngest Inter player to score in European competition - aged 18 years and 85 days - and continued to impress in Italy despite being subject to horrific and sustained racist abuse from supporters, especially at away games.
None of it was without controversy of course, from an argument with Marco Materazzi and other senior players after throwing his Inter shirt to the ground during a game, falling out publicly with Jose Mourinho, being pictured wearing a Milan shirt on television, to the wonderful creativity shown by his telling the local police his name was (Juventus striker) Vincenzo Iaquinta after being stopped for a minor offence.
Heated rivals of Inter, the Turin club have always been a major part of his story, beginning with the "se saltelli, muore Balotelli" - 'if we jump, Balotelli dies' - chant, often in games against other clubs when he wasn't even playing against Juventus, behaviour that saw them forced to play a game behind closed doors. He also played an antagonistic role in a particularly bad tempered 1-1 draw in a Derby d'Italia (as games between Juve and Inter are known) back in 2009, where he repeatedly antagonised Juve players, fans and even the match officials. Of course he was the goal scorer, proving his footballing ability was always evident even on his craziest days.
But his behaviour brought disapproval from club management, team-mates, fans and the Italian media, all of which combined to make him want to leave, and there was really only one place he wanted to go: Manchester City. This wasn't due to some Robbie Keane-esque childhood dream, but recognition from Balotelli that the one manager who, while never claiming to understand what's going on over on Planet Mario, could always draw the best from him where it counts; on the pitch.
|“||When I watch myself on television sometimes I don't even recognise it as me. I'm a good person with healthy principles, but I am also young and like to have fun ”|
Roberto Mancini was something of a wayward player himself and perhaps it is memories of those outbursts that allow him to show greater restraint, tolerance and empathy with his 21-year-old protégé. That relationship (with the player saying his coach is "like a dad to me") has been at its best this season when, thanks to the petulant and ultimately foolish behaviour of Carlos Tevez, Balotelli is finally in the somewhat alien position of not being the most challenging member of City's squad.
Stepping into space created by the 'home-sick' Argentine and benefitting from increased rotation thanks to the club's involvement in the Champions League has seen him net six goals in his last five appearances in a team which is currently enjoying a superb spell. Joe Hart commented on this more mature approach, telling reporters "He's a frustrating character from the outside, and sometimes from the inside too. But this season, certainly in recent weeks, he's left all that behind him."
Without doubt he is currently in fine form this term, meshing well with the creative talent of David Silva and beginning to form an impressive if unlikely partnership with Sergio Agüero. Mancini has managed him supremely well, picking the ideal games to exploit his attributes and capitalising on his UEFA ban in order to rest other players ahead of what is proving to be a difficult debut for the club in Europe's elite competition.
Balotelli is quick, powerful, strong in the air, boasts clinical shooting and has good tactical intelligence; attributes that many players simply do not possess and, while Mancini's claim this week that he is already "in the first five players in the world" is undoubtedly premature, he has all the ability to one day become precisely that.
He has already begun this season on the right path, but as the incident that led to him being named Manchester's Ambassador for Firework Safety proved, Balotelli is never too far away from the next instalment of what has become a soap opera life. It's quickly becoming Super Mario's world, all we can do is enjoy the ride.