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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Balotelli attempts a more positive gloss on life in England. The rain doesn't bother him, he says, "because I never go out ... so it can rain as much as it wants to, and I'll be in the house." The local paparazzi regularly disprove that notion of a stay-at-home Mario by tracking him to nightspots. Even indoors, he isn't necessarily safe from getting into the scrapes that have raised his profile and risked lowering his game. The night before City's vital clash with United last October, the fire brigade answered an emergency call out to Balotelli's rented Cheshire mansion. A firework, set off inside the bathroom, had started a larger conflagration. He expiated any guilt for the incident — which he blames on an unnamed friend — three times over, with his two goals against United and by fronting a public-service campaign encouraging the safe use of fireworks.

Like the irrepressible child who kept kicking his football inside the house, the adult Balotelli doesn't have a straightforward relationship with authority. He respects some of its representatives and depends on them — after his family, Mancini, whom he describes as "like a father," has been a key figure in his life — but he doesn't always obey these parental figures. In his 2008 Sportweek interview, he wondered aloud about his tendency to react to provocations on the pitch "and how much it has to do with the abandonment." José Mourinho, now at Real Madrid, endured a fractious relationship with Balotelli when the Portuguese coach managed Inter Milan. Both men now appear to see the funny side. "I could write a book of 200 pages [about] my two years [at] Inter with Mario. But the book would be not a drama. The book would be a comedy," Mourinho told CNN. Balotelli concurs: "I think we were two funny people together." He adds, "But the main character would be him, not me."

As Mourinho's predecessor at Inter, Mancini spotted Balotelli's potential, giving the player a spot on the adult team when he was only 17. It was Mancini who later tempted Balotelli to City. These days Mancini seems unsure about his protégé's future. "Every day I say to Mario I've finished my patience, every day," says Mancini. "I've known Mario for six or seven years, and he played the first time in the first team with me. And for this I know very well him, and I can say that his talent is incredible." That talent, Mancini fears, is undermined by a lack of focus. "He needs to think only about his job, that he plays for a very important team, that he is to have good behavior always. Because the career of a player is very short."

A Problem like Mario
City is probably about as friendly a Premier League club as it is possible to find, as good a surrogate family as a player could hope for. Its wealth is too recent for its backroom staff to have acquired airs and graces. Founded in the 19th century by the daughter of a vicar aiming to lure blue collar Mancunians out of pubs and into a healthier form of social activity, the club now faces the challenge of keeping its charges out of pubs and in good health. "Nobody can predict what life will throw at you during the early hours of the morning. Whether it's neighborhood disputes, press invasion or seeking a solution for a domestic issue, we are here for you around the clock," promises the player-care booklet.

For Balotelli, a stranger in a strange country, support from City is critical in helping him handle the fireworks that so often seem to explode in his eventful life. He has formed a bond with Patrick Vieira, a former top footballer who has played in England and Italy and has taken on the job at City of nurturing upcoming talent. "I love Mario, and I get frustrated with him sometimes because of the mistakes he makes," says Vieira. "But he's a lovely, gentle person with a big heart."

Vieira identifies one hurdle for Balotelli in a cultural difference between English and Italian football. Balotelli is sometimes painted as a prima donna, focused too much on his goal tally and too little on team play, but Vieira explains that "Italian strikers are not used to defending. Mario is not used to tracking the defenders. Italian strikers have to score goals, but in England we ask them to work for the team, to defend. Mario hasn't had this football education."

The larger hurdle, though, is Balotelli himself, with his astonishing gift for football and his bewildering ability to compromise that gift. "Sometimes I have a discussion with him, saying 'Why are you doing all these stupid things because that's not you?' And he laughs, because he knows it's the truth," says Vieira. He has made a wager with Balotelli that the young player will behave himself this year. He declines to name the exact terms, but it's surely far from a safe bet.

And it's far from a safe bet that Balotelli's fans want their idol to learn to behave, or that it's entirely in his financial interest to do so. He may not yet be judged the world's greatest footballer — and he may never realize his potential — but he's already international football's greatest character, magnetic, funny, surprising and marketable. His question "Why always me?" inspired a track by the Ghanaian-born British rapper Tinchy Stryder. Balotelli and Stryder later collaborated with sportswear manufacturer Umbro to produce a shirt bearing the slogan. There's a chant that City supporters take up when Balotelli comes out to play: "He does what he wants, he does what he wants. Balotelli, he does what he wants."

"We'd hate him if he wasn't playing for us," says Blues fan Owen. "We love him because he's ours. Because he's so fantastic a player but so crazy. If he played for United, he would be the absolute hate figure. He's flashy, he's arrogant, he's brilliant — and he's ours." The last point may not be true for long, if Mancini's patience runs out or Balotelli's impulses take him elsewhere. Raiola declines to comment on a fresh flurry of speculation that his client is considering a return to Italy to play for A.C. Milan, but adds, "That Mario is in demand is not in question." And the decisions Balotelli makes won't just determine the colors he wears or whether he plays in rain or sun; they could shape or destroy his legacy, give him the stability to succeed or help him to squander that amazing talent. Balotelli, like his club, his country and his continent, is in transition. Nobody can predict how the game will end.

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