By Pat Nevin
Crazy man child or misunderstood genius, I personally couldn’t get my head round just who the real Mario Balotelli is. Read some of the tabloids and he is the worst kind of mad, bad, out of control, arrogant, spoiled footballer. Ask others, and although he might let off the odd firework indoors, he also looks out for bullied kids, is generous to a ridiculous level and, most importantly, is one of the most special players on the planet.
I decided to scour Europe to find people who could give me an insight into what he is really like. Is he arrogant or is he actually painfully shy? Is it indeed something a little more complex than that, involving how he was treated as a black kid growing up in Northern Italy - a still fairly uncommon upbringing even today?
His sister, his teacher, a team mate from his youth days and his coach from that time were desperately keen to give what they think is an honest and fair appraisal of the man whose character is still a mystery in this country. I can tell you he is certainly not the person I thought I would find before I started my search.
What about how he is rated as a player by some of the top professionals that have worked with him? His under 21 boss, the former Chelsea and Italy striker Pierluigi Casiraghi startled me with his opinion on Mario’s abilities, telling me he had never seen Roberto Baggio or Gianfranco Zola do the things that Balotelli does. Further chats with Luca Vialli, Marcello Lippi and Ivano Bonetti, the former Genoa, Sampdoria and Tranmere player who lives in Mario’s home town, underlined that many in Italy share his views.
His colourful agent chatting in a stylish café in Milan’s coolest street gave some incredible insights into Balotelli’s relationship with Mancini, explaining the reasons for the deep bond between the two men. Everywhere I went, everyone I talked to had an opinion on the Man City striker. In Italy he is adored and venerated but why then did he feel the need to leave so young?
There must be something special about him because even the Special One, Jose Mourinho couldn’t figure out how to get the best from him, a rare occasion when the Portuguese admitted defeat. Was it madness that is inherent or a wildness that cannot be tamed or was it little more than the excitement of youth that still exists in the player today?
Who else would get Noel Gallagher to regularly dedicate a song to him when he plays live? Noel told me exactly why he thinks Mario is among the best, why he acts the way he does and why he could have been a great front man in a band if he wasn't a centre forward.
And that could be the best way to sum him up – Mario Balotelli, this generation’s rock’n’roll footballer.
By 5 live Sport producer Patrick Nathanson
Controversial, colourful, combustible. Whether its throwing darts at youth team players, setting off fireworks in his house, or terrorising opposition defenders, Mario Balotelli is one of the most talked about, and talented, players of his generation.
But how much do we know about the real Balottelli? We set off to Italy to find out more.
His agent Mino Raiola met us in a chic Milan café tucked away amongst some of the most fashionable streets in the world. As the busy Armani-clad army of shoppers streamed by, Raiola explained the paradox at the heart of Balotelli’s persona – he was chronically shy yet subject to a gravitational pull towards the centre of attention.
“He’s a Peter Pan character,” said Raiola.
A world away from the 10 euro cappuccinos and Louis Vuitton handbags, we headed to the outskirts of snowy Brescia to catch up with Mario’s former coach at AC Lumezzane, Giovanni Valenti. Giovanni remembered a boisterous boy with talent (rather than fireworks) to burn. He also highlighted Mario’s empathetic side- after scoring a hat-trick in an important youth cup final, Mario refused to join the celebrations until he had consoled a tearful opponent.
Our journey took us to some pretty unlikely doorsteps. Noel Gallagher told us that if he wasn’t a footballer, Mario would make the perfect front man for a rock’n’roll band. Father Paddy McMahon of St John’s Church in Chorlton, Manchester, recalled his surprise at seeing Mario pop in for Midnight Mass over Christmas.
And Cristina Balotelli, Mario’s sister, gave us an insight into what Mario was like growing up. “Naughty,” was her fond assessment.
Meanwhile, Mario’s former Italy Under-21 coach Pierluigi Casiraghi espoused Mario’s rich talent – “During training sessions there are times I have seen him do things that I have never seen anyone do before- and remember I’ve played with Roberto Baggio, Zola and lots of the very best”- as well as remembering the many times he would go into Mario’s rather messy hotel room to find him avidly watching youtube clips of his hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
So is Super Mario a wayward maverick or misunderstood football genius? Tune in to 5 live sport on weds from 19.30 to find out....
The Sur-real Mario Balotelli is on 5 live Sport on Wednesday 22 February at 19.30.