City bad boy: I'm not unmanageable

Balotelli opens up on Mancini's rants, Mourinho's failings, live lobsters, fireworks and all those parking tickets
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If you imagined where you might meet Mario Balotelli, it would not be here. The walls would be black marble. There would be diamonds, women and a few Kalashnikovs scattered around, perhaps a leopard on a leash. Balotelli is a footballer who is supposed to live amid the kind of unfettered decadence not seen since Imperial Rome, just before the Visigoths came calling.

Here, there are little vases with a few flowers in each, tea cups and thin wooden chairs. Football's baddest boy is in a hospice underneath Manchester Airport's flight-path, and at first sight, sending him to St Ann's seems a PR opportunity too far for Manchester City as they prepare for a first FA Cup final in 30 years.

Yet, accompanied by Patrick Vieira, whom he calls "not my brother but my dad", he sparkles like the diamonds on the bracelet around his wrist, enjoying some banter with the ladies of a certain age who serve the snacks, and smiling more than he has for an entire fretful season at Eastlands.

He has the build and beauty of a young heavyweight. When he came to England from Internazionale, where Jose Mourinho had declared him "unmanageable", he spoke littleEnglish but now, nine months later, he talks in deep, measured tones more fluently than Roberto Mancini. His manager's English is, Balotelli laughs, "orrendo".

He doesn't say in what language they spoke when Mancini con-fronted his protégé after what was Balotelli's lowest moment in a Manchester City shirt. In March, he was dismissed early in City's Europa League encounter with Dynamo Kiev for a chest-high lunge on Goran Popov. City were already two down from the first leg in Ukraine, and though the Europa League is an unloved trophy it was one Mancini,in charge of a club who had brought in no serious silverware since 1976, was determined to win.

"He killed me afterwards," said Balotelli with a sheepish smile. "He said, 'You are an idiot and I don't know why I bought you.' You know, I hate people who come up to you and say, 'Oh Mario, you played well," and then turn round to the others and say, 'Mario was shit.' I prefer they come to me and say, 'Mario, you were shit.' Roberto had to say what he had to say. He has never lied to me."

Mancini has, however, stuck his neck out for Balotelli. Of the strikers he inherited or bought, Craig Bellamy and Emmanuel Adebayor are in Cardiff and Madrid respectively; Carlos Tevez is on the treatment table perhaps manoeuvring a way out of Eastlands; while Edin Dzeko is still finding his feet. That leaves Balotelli.

Curiously, Balotelli remarked he had not played to his full potential in any of his games for City: "There is no game I've played I am happy with. I have a level, a normal level and a high level. When I play above the normal level I can be one of the best in the game. But I have never played at my normal level here. Itwas difficult for me because I got injured twice and had no training in pre-season because I didn't know if I was going to England or staying at Inter. Because of that my physical condition was really low.

"I am enjoying myself now. When I first came here it was a little bit difficult because I am young and coming to another country. I am 20 years old and to do this is not easy.

"I am not unmanageable. Maybe Mourinho said it because he could not do it. Mancini is doing it, managing me, so it cannot be true. Mourinhois different, because when I started having problems he went against me, but Mancini really supported me. Mourinho went against me because we have the same character."

The suggestion that some City fans might want Mourinho, rather than Mancini, receives a sharp response: "Well, we are in the final of the FA Cup at a club that has not won a trophy for 35 years, I don't know why anybody would want another coach."

You forget he is 20 and living abroad with few friends. There are analogies to Paul Gascoigne's time in Rome, and Gazza would certainly have approved of japes such as putting live lobsters in Balotelli's car and of the fireworks he set off from the balcony of his city-centre flat.

But Gascoigne was five years older when he made his debut for Lazio and never quite got to grips with Italian irregular verbs. And in the words of the former Italy manager Enzo Bearzot, British footballers in Italy were notorious for two things: reneging on contracts and boozing. Asked if he planned to stay long at Eastlands, Balotelli laughed and said he didn't know what he was doing that evening.

Balotelli's bar of choice is Duke's 92 by the Rochdale Canal; nice, but hardly on hedonism's cutting edge. "I am shy and it's difficult to talk about myself," he said. "I like to have fun, I like to do what normal guys of 20 do. In Italy there was a lot of attention and here it is the same. I don't know why, other people do normal things and lead a normal life but I don't."

He is aware of what is written about him both in Manchester and Milan.

"I heard I had to pay £12,000 in parking tickets. To owe £12,000 I would have to have 35 parking tickets a day. It is really not possible. I have had a lot of parking tickets – about 20, which I admit is a lot. I park the car a lot outside San Carlo [Manchester's leadingItalian restaurant].

"Sometimes I play the PlayStation, go out shopping. I have to find something to do. In Italy I had a lot of things to do away from the game. I had a lot of friends over there, on my day off at Inter I would go to a shooting range or go-karting. I would like to do something like that over here. I have never liked golf. I have never tried it but then I've never wanted to. It is too quiet for me."

Man City v Stoke is live on ITV1 and ESPN next Saturday. 3pm kick-off

Previous finals...

1904: Man City 1-0 Bolton

Only promoted the previous year, City narrowly missed out on the Double, finishing runners-up in the League but earning their first major honour by beating Division Two Bolton at Crystal Palace. Wales's Billy Meredith scored the goal.

1926: Bolton 1-0 Man City

Bolton avenged City's 1904 win as a 76th-minute goal from David Jack led to all-out attack from City at Wembley, but they could not beat Bolton's superb keeper Dick Pym.

1933: Everton 3-0 Man City

The blue side of Manchester was forced to wear red, and it proved an unlucky omen, even with Matt Busby in the team. Everton ran out clear winners, Dixie Dean among their scorers in the first final in which players wore numbers.

1934: Man City 2-1 Portsmouth

Striker Fred Tilson netted twice in the last 15 minutes as City came from behind to win. City's young goalkeeper, Frank Swift, fainted at the final whistle.

1955: Newcastle 3-1 Man City

Ten years before substitutions were introduced, City lost full-back Jimmy Meadows after 22 minutes to a bad leg injury. They were already behind to Jackie Milburn's goal and lost despite Bobby Johnstone's equaliser.

1956: Man City 3-1 Birmingham

German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann famously played the last 15 minutes with a broken neck, making crucial saves as City made up for the heartbreak of the previous year. Johnstone scored for the second year running.

1969: Man City 1-0 Leicester City

The late Neil Young fired himself into City folklore by scoring the only goal. When the two sides met in this year's FA Cup run, City and their fans paid tribute to the striker by donning red-and-black scarves – the colours they wore on that historic day.

1981: Spurs 1-1 Man City; Replay: Spurs 3-2 Man City

City's Tommy Hutchison scored a 79th-minute own goal – and one at the right end – as the final went to a replay. A moment of genius from Ricky Villa – voted Wembley's Goal of the Century – won it for Spurs.

NB This is Stoke City's first FA Cup final appearance

Scott Mason

Balotelli on...

Wearing an Milan shirt on television while at Inter "That was a wrong thing to do, but when I was there I always said I was a Milan supporter, but I didn't think that just because I put on a different shirt it would be a problem"

Upsetting Rio Ferdinand by bearing his badge to United fans after the FA Cup semi-final "When another player celebrates to your supporters you are going to be angry with him. If one of them did the same thing to me, maybe I would react in the same way."

Wayne Rooney "When I was at Inter and I watched Rooney I didn't think he was great, I thought he was a normal player but now when I see a Manchester United match, I think he is one of the best."

On his temper "When I lose my temper I am still in control. If sometimes I have an argument with somebody, I do it because I want to do it. I am always focused. I joke with my team-mates in the dressing room before the game but I am still focused on the game."

Tim Rich