World Cup 2014: Inside the head of Mario Balotelli
They thought the hot-headed Italian striker would calm down when he returned to the motherland but then came paternity issues
The question of how to tame him will be a prime English preoccupation before next Saturday but the only individual in Mario Balotelli's life who could ever accomplish such a feat has been his adoptive mother.
I last saw her on a Sunday morning in the winter of 2009; a tiny, formidable woman who clambered into the ludicrously huge people-carrier which was laid on to whisk her from Manchester's Deansgate – Mario's latest abode – to the airport.
It had been one of her periodic trips, limited by her husband's poor health, to watch over Mario. She had wanted to see Manchester Cathedral, where my own son had not long been installed as a chorister, and she talked that morning about the supreme difficulty of getting her own boy on track. It was when the two of them were alone that she could get through to him, she said. The previous night she had virtually ordered him to watch a film on adopted children. Like a child he had obeyed.
Manchester City tried every conceivable device to find a surrogate Silvia Balotelli. They even appointed a housekeeper – a Mrs Doubtfire type – whom they knew would not be affected by his celebrity or take any nonsense. But it seemed that only his return to Milan 18 months ago – an hour west of the family home in Brescia – might bring his salvation. Balotelli escaped Roberto Mancini's toxic dressing room, not to mention the pariahs and hangers-on who, in the City days, would try to convince him they could source him a sports car at half the price that City could, then tell him the club were cashing in on him.
It cannot be said that Italy has been the saving of him, though. The usual, soaring self-belief led the 23-year-old to post an Instagram drawing last Thursday, depicting him as Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue. But he is still the same baffling bag of madness and wildness.
There is a case to be made that the insulated environment of tournament football – like last summer's Confederations Cup and his display at the 2012 European Championship – brings out the best in him.
But this is also a player who has not scored for Cesare Prandelli's national side since the 2-2 draw against Armenia last October and has not found the net for Internazionale since they played Livorno in April. Italy still awaits the best of him.
For a time, it seemed that the return home had changed him. Italy observed what Rafael Benitez saw at close quarters in the brief few weeks he managed him at Milan before the striker left for Manchester. "In that time he was no trouble," Benitez insists. Balotelli declared on his return that the stories in the British press had all been fabricated and, perhaps because of the Italian media's desire to protect the players to avoid jeopardising their form, calm broke out.
"He looked more responsible somehow – possibly because he was evaluating more the things he missed while living in Manchester," says journalist Federico Farcomeni, who has watched him closely.
The stories bubbled away on the celebrity pages – the drama of his refusal to acknowledge the paternity of the daughter, Pia, born to former girlfriend Raffaella Fico, followed by his fight for access to the child, and more recently the fascination with his subsequent girlfriend Fanny Neguesha – now pregnant too. But the madness of Mario has inexorably been broadening out in the last six months.
Ballotelli's current girlfriend, Fanny Neguesha In January, there was a fight in a disco with the Italian TV presenter and former singer Facchinetti Jnr. Then in February, there was an angry reaction to excessive attention from a photographer in Liguria, on Italy's north-west coast. In May, at the Hollywood nightclub in Milan, somebody stole valuables from him and another brawl broke out.
Some of the dramas were more beguiling. Acres of newsprint were devoted to the striker weeping on the bench in Napoli when he was substituted moments after missing an open goal on a bad night for Milan. The immediate, superficial conclusion was that he had been the victim of racist abuse, though this appears to have been the anguish of one who had been denied the chance to complete the dedication of a goal to his then newly discovered daughter. Ms Fico and Pia both live in Naples.
Some of those closest to Balotelli insist his need of biological proof that he is the child's father links to the fact that his own biological parents gave him up. "I know what it's like to be a child and suddenly people leave," he said recently. Balotelli's wildness has always obscured the complex, active mind within.
The fundamental footballing fact is that chaos in the background is still contributing to the vast potential perceived by most managers who work with him – Benitez included – as going unfulfilled. Farcomeni remarks on Balotelli's struggle to make an imprint on the really big games. The fabulous goal from 25 yards against Bologna or a last-minute winner in Cagliari, in the process silencing home fans who had booed him throughout the game, was not complemented by ignition in the Champions' League. Forte con i deboli e debole con i forti (strong with the weak, and weak with the strong) as they like to say in Italy.
If anything, his managers have engaged in the same policy of indulgence as Mancini, to coax the best out of him. The Milan manager Clarence Seedorf insisted after the striker's petulant response to another substitution during April's 2-0 loss to Roma that "journalists have not helped Balotelli's growth. At times, it's better to leave him alone. I feel his positive changes are not highlighted. It's not fair only to look at his negative moments. His scoring statistics are strong." Balotelli railed that night against TV pundits who "don't understand anything about football". Prandelli's recent observation that he does not want Balotelli dropping back into midfield to help out also smacked of mild indulgence. He and Balotelli both come from Brescia – so does Andrea Pirlo – and however the national side's tactics might change, Balotelli always seems to be spearheading the attack.
The conversation about Balotelli is as endless in Italy as it was in England, with a sizeable number of Milan's supporters tiring of a superstar attitude and a sense that he is "doing them a favour" as Farcomeni puts it. But few football people diverge from the view that he can have it all if he can only sort his mind out. "He has the strength, which not all the Italians possess," says one coach who has worked with him in Italy. "The height, too, the instinct, the finishing ability, two good feet, though his right is better. He won't make the best of all this until he sorts himself out but that could still happen, in four or five years' time.
"Players can surface, look at themselves, and say 'I've got to make the most of what I've got in the time I've got'. For now, you just can't predict when he'll cause big trouble."
That's hardly the most comfortable thought for the current English central defensive partnership but it could be worse. If Mario's mother had had it her way, the English nation would be flinching at the prospect of what he might unleash on them.
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