Bryan Robson tells a tale about playing in a reserve match while returning from injury for Manchester United when a free-kick is awarded on the edge of the box. As he stands over the ball a skinny teenager says, "I'll have this one," and gestures for his captain to move aside. Curious at what the youngster will do after such a display of chutzpah, Robson does as he is told. He then watches David Beckham curl the ball into the net.
There was something of Beckham's poise and confidence in the way Mario Balotelli took control of the situation when Internazionale won a free-kick 34 metres out on Wednesday night. Wesley Sneijder, Javier Zanetti, Samuel Eto'o and Dejan Stankovic were all on hand but Balotelli made it clear he was taking the kick. He then buried it past Rubin Kazan's goalkeeper to ensure Inter reached the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Balotelli had already been instrumental in Inter's first goal but, post-match, Jose Mourinho was curmudgeonly when asked about the teenaged striker. "How good can he be?" was the gushing question. Mourinho responded with a verbal bucket of water, explaining that it was up to the player how good he would become, indicating that it was not certain Balotelli would fulfil his talent as his attitude was unsatisfactory.
Back in the TV studios, the comparison was drawn with Mourinho's relationship with Joe Cole, presumably a reference to his public slapping down of the England midfielder after he had scored a winning goal against Liverpool.
Cole's problem with Mourinho was, though, all about his lack of defensive discipline and team awareness on the pitch. Mourinho's relationship with Balotelli is far more complex, and strained.
Mourinho regards the 19-year-old as arrogant (who better to judge?) and lazy. He has been dropped for his attitude in training, and for being late. Last month he gave Balotelli a mark of "close to zero" for his performance in a draw with Roma. Earlier this year he criticised the negativity Balotelli brought to the squad.
So far, so typical. Another tale of a footballer who thinks he is God's gift, who believes he's made it after a few headlines, who needs, as commentators regularly say about Balotelli, to mature.
Except Balotelli is far from typical and, rather than being a young man with nothing to think about but playing football, he is subject to unique pressures.
Balotelli was born Mario Barwuah to Ghanaian immigrants in Palermo, Sicily, shortly after the Italia '90 World Cup. The family moved to Brescia, in the north, but while still a toddler he was handed over to a local white family, the Balotellis, in what seems to have been an unofficial adoption.
As he grew, he showed prodigious talent as a footballer, making his debut at 15 for Lumezzane in Serie C. Within a year he was being wooed by Barcelona, among others, but opted to join Inter in nearby Milan. He made his first-team debut at 17 and within months scored as Inter completed the double with victory in the final of the Coppa Italia. So far, so good.
But the following season (last season) he was racially abused by Juventus fans in Turin, the incident being serious enough for the Italian FA to hand Juve a ground closure.
Which is where the Boy's Own dream becomes dark and complicated. Both Mourinho and Milan's black Dutchman Clarence Seedorf insisted the abuse is not racist but a reflection of Balotelli's provocative, petulant, show-pony manner on the pitch, which had resulted on this occasion in Juve's Tiago being dismissed for fouling him. They, and Juve fans, point out that Inter's other black players were not abused. Yet it is impossible to dismiss the chant that translates as "Balotelli is a shitty nigger" as not being indicative of a racist mentality.
Then there is the unique factor that Balotelli is the first high-profile black Italian footballer (former internationals Fabio Liverani and Matteo Ferrari were mixed-race and much lighter-skinned). As such Italians, many of whom are unhappy at high levels of legal and illegal immigration, are being asked questions about their sense of national identity that to some are unwelcome, and uncomfortable. For make no mistake, Balotelli may not look classically Italian, but he sounds and feels Italian. Italian law meant he was not able to take citizenship until his 18th birthday, but while waiting he turned down several approaches from Ghana to play for them and, having not yet been capped a senior level by the Azzurri, continues to do so.
On this issue he has said: "There is pride at stake, Italy is my country and it would be tough to change." On the abuse he received in Turin he said, "I am more Italian than those Juventus fans in the stands."
When he talks about discussing such issues with his family, he means his adopted family. When his birth parents reappeared in his life, via media interviews, he was dismissive. "I was adopted by the Balotelli family when I was just two. Why? No one has ever asked the Barwuahs, and now they are doing interviews with papers holding my photo in an Inter shirt with sad faces. Why did they never ask the courts to take me back? Now I am a Serie A player they want to come and find me."
The Barwuahs are not the only ones following Balotelli's progress with interest. Arsenal and Chelsea have been consistently linked with him but Massimo Moratti, Inter's powerful owner-president, has always made it clear the player, who is under contract until 2011, is not for sale. That might change if Mourinho's tough-love approach fails, but as the Portuguese's tenure at San Siro is far from secure, Balotelli would probably sit tight.
There is no doubting Balotelli is a singular talent, but he is also a teenager in unique circumstances. It is hardly surprising that he needs careful handling. One can only hope he fulfils his potential.
The story so far... What we've learnt from the group stages
Q. Balotelli aside, which youngsters have caught the eye?
A. The 20-year-old Montenegrin, Stevan Jovetic, showed he is one for the future with his brace, while still a teenager, against Liverpool in Florence. Bosnian Miralem Pjanic is still 19 but he has filled the boots of Lyons' departed hero Juninho Pernambuco with impressive sangfroid.
Two slightly older players, Jesus Navas (24 last month), Milos Krasic (25 last month), also impressed. Navas has been on the radar for some time – Chelsea tried to buy him in 2006 – but the Seville winger is such a poor traveller he withdrew from the Spanish side for a while but is now back in contention for a place in South Africa. Krasic, a Serb at CSKA Moscow, has also been around a while but his skills on the Luzhniki plastic pitch brought him to wider attention. He, too, will be on the scouts' World Cup list.
Q. Which teams have surprised?
A. Notably Bordeaux, very impressive qualifiers ahead of Bayern Munich and Juventus. As well as Marouane Chamakh Laurent Blanc's French champions have the Czech Jaroslav Plasil and Brazilian Wendel in midfield, and Yoann Gourcuff, who lost his way at Milan before his career was revived by Blanc last year. Fiorentina look to have their best team since the days of Gabriel Batistuta and Porto their best since Jose Mourinho steered them to the crown in 2004. An honourable mention too, to Rubin Kazan, the Russian champions, who worried Barcelona and Inter. Liverpool will want to avoid meeting them in Friday's Europa Cup draw.
Q. Who has disappointed?
A. Liverpool and Juventus may feel like donning a disguise as they enter the Europa Cup but at least they qualified for the junior competition. Atletico Madrid are out of Europe completely having finished last, below Cypriot debutants, Apoel Nicosia in Chelsea's group. Rangers were similarly humbled by Dan Petrescu's Unirea Urziceni.
Q. Who should English clubs fear in next Friday's draw?
A. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United each won their groups so will be paired with a runner-up, but not the team which came second in their respective groups. Inter, Milan and Bayern Munich are the stand-out names with Lyons and Porto (from Chelsea's group) the dark horses. Taking logistical considerations into account the best draw could be VfB Stuttgart, now coached by the former Spurs manager Christian Gross.
Glenn Moore, Football EditorReuse content