Mancini playing with fire in temptation by Balotelli

Controversy over Italian striker may seem racist but others say the 19-year-old still has plenty of growing up to do. Ian Herbert reports
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The Independent Football

It took Manchester City's previous expensive striker of African descent 28 days of the last football season to plunge himself into a storm of controversy. To judge by his track record, the club will be lucky if the prospective next one waits that long. If Emmanuel Adebayor's mind was a simmering ball of anger waiting to vent itself on the Arsenal fans who he felt had betrayed him, then Mario Balotelli, who City are confident of signing, is a timebomb ready to immolate any who stand in his way.

City may discover soon enough if the 19-year-old has been a victim or a perpetrator during his short and controversial career at Internazionale and, more significantly, whether manager Roberto Mancini can tame him. The history is a complicated one and bound up in the question of the Italian nation's seeming inability to embrace a multi-ethnic identity. At a casual glance, all that needs to be said is that Balotelli has been subjected to offensive terrace songs, of which at least one was openly racist. A particular favourite with supporters of Juventus is, "If you jump up and down, Balotelli dies", though the really revelatory one is: "A negro cannot be Italian."

Earlier this year, Juventus were fined for anti-Balotelli chants for the second time in the season. The striker was born – and later abandoned by his Ghanaian parents – in the Sicilian capital, Palermo. Though he holds an Italian passport, was raised by adoptive parents in Brescia from the age of two, speaks with the accent of his region and has been a rising star of Italy's Under-21 team, his nationality seems to have made him the source of more abuse than any other black footballer in Italy. At least that is the received wisdom among the more thoughtful observers in a nation whose lexicon has come to include the term the "Balotelli generation" – coined by the Italian civil service to define the half-million children of immigrants born in Italy who qualify by law for Italian citizenship on their 18th birthday.

That is not every individual's view of Balotelli's experiences, though. Despite questions in parliament about the chants (which are by no means limited to Turin), some – including his former Inter manager Jose Mourinho, suggest Balotelli is abused because of his behaviour, rather than the colour of his skin. After the last Juventus fine, the club's Ultras, the hardcore fan base, pointed out that Balotelli's behaviour – including tricks and step-overs which prompted a rash challenge from Tiago that led to the Portugal midfielder's dismissal – were the cause of the abuse.

The fans, presumably supported by Facebook's three anti-Balotelli groups with total membership of more than 45,000, pointed out that although he was abused, Inter's other black players – Patrick Vieira and Sulley Muntari – were not. They reinforced their point four days later, when Juventus played Lazio, by displaying a banner that read: "Seedorf, Davids, Sissoko: true champions, true idols". The message was clear: the racial abuse is not 'real' racism.

Viewed from these shores, the argument appears perverse. Racist abuse for a good reason? But that Seedorf should actually have taken the point reveals Balotelli's habit of dividing opinion.

"You have to stop calling this racism, because it isn't racist," Seedorf said. "It's the same kind of abuse that other, non-black players get when fans sing about their mothers. The fact is that certain players stand out because of their behaviour on the pitch. Balotelli needs to understand that if he continues to behave this way he will continue to elicit similar reactions everywhere he goes."

Even Mourinho, the first to defend his players and seek an advantage from a situation like this, declared "the abuse was childish and ignorant but it wasn't racist. It's not as if they were abusing him because Balotelli is of African descent. They were abusing him because he's an opponent, and a very talented one at that, one whose skill had just led to a Juve player getting sent off."

Mourinho, in fact, never took to the player. He disliked his swagger in training, his giggling with his friends and sent "Supermario" – as some fans had come to know him – back to the youth team. Roma's Francesco Totti would side with Mourinho. After Balotelli claimed the Roma striker had racially abused him in May's Coppa Italia final, Totti, sent off for kicking Balotelli, insisted the teenager had taunted him with the words: "Yo, granddad! You are finished."

City will certainly be taking on an intense and complex individual if the stumbling block to a deal – Balotelli's wage demands of £3m a year – can be overcome. His adoptive sister Cristina told the French newspaper L'Equipe that "Mario always needed love and affection. He wouldn't go to sleep without his mother holding his hand" and on the pitch he has certainly been acutely aware of abuse. Mourinho clearly had his fill of this.

"Nothing has changed," he said just before leaving for Real Madrid. "Neither the way Balotelli works nor his attitude. His effort in training is 25 per cent; if it was at 50 per cent he would be one of the best players in the world. I don't like the atmosphere he is bringing to the team and the way he works during the week. It's not the right attitude for a young player. He lacks concentration and motivation. He must change."

But Mancini feels differently. "When you are young, you make mistakes," he said this week. "That is true of all of us. I do not think Mario is a hard player to work with. I think he is a fantastic player." With the challenging personality of Carlos Tevez to handle already, Mancini will have his work cut out but evidently feels it is worth the effort.

Balotelli's bust-ups

January 2009 Internazionale manager Jose Mourinho criticises his striker. "It's not the right attitude," Mourinho said. "He must change."

April Racially abused by Juventus fans in making his debut for Italy Under-21s.

November Mourinho says Balotelli's display in a match against Roma "came close to a zero rating."

January 2010 Fined £7,000 by the Italian FA after sarcastically applauding Chievo fans' racial abuse.

February Left out of squad against Chelsea in the Champions League after falling out with Mourinho. Criticised by team-mates and own agent.

March Wears Milan shirt on TV show.

April Apologises after flinging Inter shirt to the ground during Champions League victory over Barcelona.

May Balotelli claims Roma's Francesco Totti racially abused him in the Coppa Italia final. Totti, sent off for kicking Balotelli, denied the claims, saying the youngster taunted him with: "Yo, granddad! You are finished."