Why Always Mario?

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Photo Illustration by Levon Biss for TIME

Balotelli's emotions sometimes get the better of him.

This game won't turn out well for Mario Balotelli, but Manchester City's star striker is always watchable. A Mohawk adds a bristling inch to his strapping frame, and even by the balletic, fast-paced standards of top-tier football, he moves with a mesmeric grace, twisting past defenders without losing speed. Sometimes he attracts attention for the wrong reasons too. Eighteen and a half minutes into the Oct. 20 match with West Bromwich Albion, his tackle on an opponent is deemed a foul, and the referee brandishes a yellow card. A further infringement risks earning a red card, banishing Balotelli and leaving City a man short. He knows he ought to accept the decision as surely as everyone watching knows he will not. And soon enough he is arguing with the referee, returning at the halftime whistle to remonstrate with him again until a teammate roughly pushes the player away.

Whether on the pitch or in private, Balotelli seems to generate energy rather than burn it. Dramas flare around him; passions ignite. When he isn't playing, he fidgets. But if called to take a penalty, at the very peak of pressure, he turns icily calm. Since signing with the English Premier League club in 2010, "Super Mario" hasn't missed a spot kick at the goal. (Lionel Messi, Barcelona's most prolific scorer and winner of this year's European Golden Boot award for racking up the most goals in the season, had a success rate from penalties of 82%.) "It's just like a game of mind, me and the goalkeeper," says Balotelli of his perfect penalty record. "Me, I know how to control my mind." The secret lies in his distinctive stuttering run-up to the ball, so different from his usual fluidity. He waits for the goalkeeper to guess at the likely trajectory of his shot and in that fraction of a second aims into the opposite corner of the net. "When the goalkeeper moves before me, it means that in this game of mind he lost," he says.

Last season, Balotelli helped the Blues — nicknamed for their team colors rather than the three miserable decades they spent in the doldrums — win the league title, England's most important football trophy. Better yet, City did it by snatching victory from its relentlessly successful red-shirted rival Manchester United. City has invested in a squad of top players since the club's acquisition by Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of Abu Dhabi's ruling family, four years ago. From the start of the season in the summer of 2011 to its cliff-hanger finale in May, Balotelli repaid his reported $38.5 million price tag with 13 goals, two of them against United in a 6-1 drubbing that signaled City's new-moneyed resurgence. After his first goal against the Reds, Balotelli lifted his shirt to reveal a second shirt, emblazoned with the words WHY ALWAYS ME? His critics interpreted the slogan as a boast, an example of the arrogance they think disfigures his play. He says, on the contrary, the message was a plea to those critics and to the paparazzi who trail him off the pitch: "Just leave me alone."

It's a vain hope for a 22-year-old burdened with instant recognition in Europe and swelling fame far beyond the continent. He fascinates because — penalty shoot-outs aside — he is unpredictable. He should be scoring more goals (his tally put him at 10th place in the rankings of Premier League players last season, behind City strikers Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko). He should be creating more opportunities for colleagues like Aguero and Dzeko to score. His play can infuse his teammates with vigor or simply distract them. City's manager — and his longtime mentor — Roberto Mancini leaves Balotelli on the substitutes' bench with increasing frequency, worried about how the mercurial wunderkind will perform. Pundits fill airtime and columns discussing whether Balotelli is more trouble than he's worth.

Red and yellow cards, the sky blue of City, the deeper blue of the Italian national side, the Azzurri, for which he first played in 2008: reports of Super Mario and Bad Mario, Balotelli's alter ego, are always colorful. There is the vivid flair of a prodigy, signed with the top Italian football club Inter Milan at the age of 16. There are flashes of brilliance and scarlet mists of self-destructive anger, dark moods and a grin of heart-wrenching sweetness, lurid tabloid tales and retina-searing photographs of his off-pitch fashion choices. And every frame is shot through with another color that in the internationalized, diverse world of sport might be expected to matter not a jot: the color of Balotelli's skin.

The first black player to represent Italy at major tournaments, Balotelli's early appearances provoked monkey hoots and a chant that speaks volumes about his country of birth: "There's no such thing as a black Italian!" Balotelli, of Ghanaian descent, was born in Italy and has never visited Africa. The racism continues, even as Balotelli's popularity has grown in tandem with his goal tally for Italy. As Italy prepared to meet England in the Euro 2012 championship, the national sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport published a cartoon depicting Balotelli as King Kong, the giant ape's prehensile legs clasped around the top of Big Ben. Amid protests, the Gazzetta issued an aggrieved statement: "This newspaper has fought any form of racism in every stadium." Italy may not be color-blind, but a wide strain of Italian culture seems blind to the sensitivities around color. When Balotelli delivered two goals against Germany in the semifinal of the same competition, another leading sports publication, Tuttosport, celebrated his achievement with the headline LI ABBIAMO FATTI NERI, literally "We made them black," a pun on bruising — and race.

Balotelli marked the victory against Germany, which propelled Italy to the final, by running to the crowd barrier to embrace his adoptive mother Silvia, a tiny, white bird of a woman, her face creased with pride and love. It is an image that goes to the heart of Balotelli's complex and engaging personality, and it speaks, too, to the questions that have barely begun to be tackled in Italy and continue to roil English football. The striker is a fascinating study in his own right, because of his talent and his turbulence, but Balotelli's is also a story about Europe and, above all, about identity.

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