“Why always me?”
Never before did three innocuous words seem more loaded than the question on Mario Balotelli’s undershirt. When the then 21-year-old lifted his Manchester City jersey to reveal the phrase on a T-shirt underneath, he had silenced a 70,000-plus crowd of red-topped fans. The occasion was the Manchester derby in 2011 and the venue was Old Trafford. That day, in a 6-1 rout with Balotelli bagging two, United were handed their biggest loss in over five decades of crosstown rivalry.
Only the night before, the Italian had accidentally set his bathroom on fire after setting off fireworks. The fire service had to be summoned and Balotelli spent the night in a hotel. The T-shirt celebration appeared to be a plaintive cry as well as a direct rebuke.
To the paparazzi for hounding him and to the opposition for taunting him; abuse that often took on racist overtones.
Balotelli, born to Ghanaian immigrants in Palermo, faced racist abuse from his formative years. He had a tumultuous childhood – given away to foster parents at the age of three when his biological parents couldn’t meet his expenses. A gangly Balotelli took to football as an after-school activity, then realised he was rather good at it.
After an unsuccessful stint as a 15-year-old at Barcelona, Inter Milan brought Balotelli on loan and he was given a permanent contract in 2007 under Roberto Mancini (who would later coach him at City).
England brought out the best and the worst in Balotelli. He scored goals for the blue half of Manchester and was a constant menace on the field. Naturally strong at dribbling and taking free-kicks, he linked up well with the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Edin Dzeko, scoring 13 goals in City’s first Premier League-winning campaign.
That was not all. Balotelli was also slowly cementing his place in the Italian national team. His brace against Germany, which sent Italy through to the final of the 2012 European Championships, was particularly memorable.
The second goal, a spectacular finish, saw Balotelli tear his jersey to exhibit a taped back, stand perfectly still, and flex. No pithy phrase was needed that night.
But, unlike Balotelli’s misdemeanours, the magical nights were few and far between. Cops impounding his car multiple times? Check. Visiting a strip club before an important match? Check. Caught on camera stamping on an opponent’s head? Check. Wrestled with teammate and manager? Double check.
More often than not, Balotelli was his own worst enemy – a conflicted, maverick personality who wrestled with the bad and the good. Balotelli was endearing as a baby when he couldn’t don a bib correctly, helpful like a big brother when he confronted a bully at school to help out a youngster, generous when he gave a homeless guy $1,000 (approximately Rs 67,135 now) after winning $25,000 (Rs 16.78 lakh) at a casino in Manchester.
But after moves to AC Milan and Liverpool, his off-field antics, along with a persistent groin injury, proved disastrous. Blessed with talent, Balotelli seemed unable to put in the graft and his career descended into yo-yo moves.
After returning to Liverpool from a year-long loan at Milan, Balotelli was recently told by Juergen Klopp that he must look for another club. The Italian is now behind Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi, Danny Ings and Roberto Firmino in the pecking order.
As a manager, Klopp believes in players putting in hard work; he obviously thinks Balotelli is not up to the task. Moves to the Chinese league or Major League Soccer (MLS) are supposedly in the pipeline.
Although 25 is hardly old, football is a different world; this is the age when most players peak. But it’s a different world for a temperamental Balotelli.
Either he can find a club, knuckle down and improve. Or he can fritter away the talent and, while playing at a modest club at the age of 32, look back at what could have been.