Why Always Mario?

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Photo Illustration by Levon Biss for TIME

Balotelli's emotions sometimes get the better of him.

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In conversation with TIME, he by turns charms and perplexes, unexpectedly thoughtful but sometimes contradicting himself within a couple of sentences. For Balotelli's life is all about apparent contradictions: Can he be a star and a team player? Madcap and trustworthy? What does it mean to be black and Italian? A national hero and subject to national prejudice? Balotelli's success or failure in reconciling these elements will determine whether he fulfills his potential to shine as one of the greatest sportsmen of the age or flames out like a supernova. And though he declares he has no interest in being a role model, that he just wants to play football, his success or failure will resonate through the constituencies that see in him a reflection of their own struggles or the personification of their own hopes and fears.

The Italian Job
Football superstardom is most often bestowed on the very people least equipped to deal with its temptations and stresses: young men, rich in cash and testosterone, poor in judgment. Balotelli doesn't match that template. Unlike many footballers, he has brains in his head as well as his feet. At school he was good at mathematics; he considered studying sports science at university. Nor does he lack an understanding of what his priorities should be. "I have to train hard every training session. And give everything on the pitch," he says. "You have four or five things that the manager asks you to do, then you have to play like you can play and give everything."

There is no doubting his sincerity. But there is also no doubting his capacity to say one thing and do another, as those closest to him ruefully admit. The Internet is saturated with "Crazy Mario" lists, detailing antics on and off the pitch. A fair number of the latter have been embroidered by tabloid newspapers (he didn't drive through Manchester dressed as Santa Claus, handing out money; he didn't buy everyone in a Manchester pub a drink or pay to fill up the tanks of every car at a Manchester gas station) but his erratic behavior during matches has been remorselessly documented on TV and YouTube. There's an entertaining clip in which he struggles to put on a training bib (a moment inevitably dubbed Bibotelli) and more serious incidents in which he compromises his team's chances. During City's 2011 exhibition match against L.A. Galaxy, for example, he cleared the last defender, then pirouetted before attempting and failing to kick the ball backward into the goal.

A hyperactive child, who regularly demonstrated his nascent football skills by deliberately kicking his ball through the glass pane of a door in his home, he has ripened into a hyperactive adult. "He's always busy with lots of activities. He's doing something and then he has an idea, and he wants to do something else. He has one thought, and he has 100 thoughts after it," says Cristina Balotelli, his adoptive sister. "You make an appointment with him, and he changes twice."

Like her two brothers and her parents, she is protective of the vulnerable boy, still easily glimpsed in the full-grown man, who joined her family after a difficult start in life. She praises how quickly he learned English, his instinct to avoid the flattery and flummery that his celebrity brings. "He's a bit of a mix," she says. "He's smart, he's mature, but at the same time he doesn't want to grow up." His agent, Mino Raiola, describes him as a "free spirit" and "a Peter Pan, in the positive sense."

One key to Balotelli's reluctance to put away childish things seems easy enough to locate, in an early life lacking in childish pleasures. Born in 1990 in Palermo, Sicily, to Ghanaian immigrants named Thomas and Ruth Barwuah, Balotelli spent most of his first year in the hospital, as surgeons conducted a series of operations to fix an intestinal malformation that threatened to kill him. Such medically enforced separations in infancy can create enduring feelings of abandonment, and Balotelli has indicated in interviews that he has just such feelings. But he traces them not to his time in the hospital but to the decision of the Barwuahs, by then living in cramped quarters with another African family in Brescia, northern Italy, to place him in care after his release from the hospital. He wasn't yet 3 years old when he ended up with the foster parents who would later adopt him, the Balotellis. "They say that abandonment is a wound that never heals," Balotelli told Sportweek, the weekly supplement of Gazzetta dello Sport, in 2008. "I say only that an abandoned child never forgets."

These days Balotelli does not discuss his birth parents; his birth mother, according to Britain's mass-market Daily Mail, has moved to Manchester to be near the only one of her four children whom she did not raise. The footballer may himself become a father soon. His ex-girlfriend Raffaella Fico, a reality-TV star in Italy, is pregnant with a child she says is his. Asked what kind of a parent Balotelli imagines he will be, he pauses as if to give this important question due consideration. "I think [my child will] need a mother who knows how to say no," he says eventually. "Maybe because as a small child, I suffered so much. And so I'll love him so much that maybe I won't be able to say no."

In Silvia, Balotelli found stability and a mother who says no. Balotelli says he listens to her advice and takes her reprimands to heart. When he took to bleaching his Mohawk, she relayed complaints to him from parents in Brescia that their kids were following suit. He gave up the dye. He describes her as "protective. She talks a lot. She's always right, almost always right. Patient. This is the character of my mother. For me my mother is everything."

It is the most Italian of sentiments, but Balotelli has been officially Italian only since 2008. According to Vittorio Rigo, Balotelli's attorney, the Barwuahs opposed Mario's adoption, and he had to wait until he was 18 to become a Balotelli — and an Italian. "Until that moment, he retained Ghanaian citizenship and missed the opportunity to represent Italy at the Beijing Olympics by just a few months," says Rigo.

The Balotellis accepted Mario from the moment they met him. Italy, the land of his birth, has not yet fully embraced him. In 2009, the Torino-based Juventus football club was penalized after its fans spent a match hurling racist abuse at him. Later that year, when Balotelli was out in central Rome, a stranger threw a bunch of bananas at his feet. "When I wasn't famous, I had a lot of friends, almost all of them Italian," he says. "The racism only started when I started to play football."

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