Why Always Mario?

  • Photo Illustration by Levon Biss for TIME

    Balotelli's emotions sometimes get the better of him.

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    The Home of the Blues
    That may be, in part, because Balotelli started to play football at the moment when Italy, buoyed by the false boom of the euro zone's party years and needing young workers to fill the deficit left by its rapidly aging population, became a magnet for economic migrants. In a photograph of Balotelli's grade-school football team, his is the only black face. It was an experience he repeated when he joined the Italian national under-21 team in 2008. His inclusion in the side reflected wider social change. Italy has become more diverse, and it has done so more rapidly than many other European countries. In 1990, the year of Balotelli's birth, just 1 Italian resident in 100 held a foreign passport. Today, that number is 1 in 12. Many of those migrants are black; many hold menial jobs. But a black middle class is also emerging as the children of migrants, born and raised in Italy and sometimes referred to as the "Balotelli generation," enter the workforce. Balotelli, the most prominent black Italian, has become a symbol of his country's uneasy transition.

    Football stadiums across Europe provide pitch-side views of demographic change — and the hostility that change sometimes still provokes. English football has recently been riven by ugly incidents. Premier League club Chelsea's John Terry received nothing more than a fine and a four-match ban for racially abusing another player, provoking a storm of protest and a debate about how to eradicate racism from the sport. Other countries have yet to open that debate in earnest. Italian and Spanish football have long been plagued by a small number of fans throwing abuse and missiles at black players. England's Oct. 16 under-21 game against Serbia continued as Serbian fans made monkey noises at black English players and ended in an on-pitch brawl.

    To Balotelli's eyes, Manchester's multiethnic vibrancy looks pretty good. "In England," he says, "everybody is equal." That perception isn't backed by the evidence. If Balotelli wants to see proof of social divisions, he need only take a short drive. A booklet handed to new signings by Manchester City's player-care department advises its stars to look for housing in the lushest, richest triangle of Cheshire, the lush, rich county abutting the west side of Manchester. Alderley Edge "has an elegance and style, which transcends the ephemeral nature of celebritydom ," declares the booklet. It fails to mention the Cheshire village's status as the second least deprived area of Britain in a list calculated by a charity called the Church Urban Fund. City's stadium in east Manchester, by contrast, is situated near Collyhurst, the fourth most deprived area of Britain.

    A chunk of City's new Middle Eastern wealth is being channeled into improving its neighborhood. That largesse goes down well with City fans, who have always taken pride in their club's homespun integrity. They dismiss United supporters, especially those born outside Manchester borders, as "glory hunters," seduced by the Reds' cabinets full of silver cups. The Blues' faithful, by contrast, have stuck by their team through the leanest of times. Ed Owen, chief executive of the British medical charity the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and a City devotee since boyhood, remembers watching City win England's third most important domestic tournament. "I thought at the time that's what life was going to be like supporting Manchester City. I never tasted that again until last year," he says. "The worst moment would have been a cold Tuesday night in 1998, going to see City play Wycombe Wanderers in the old Third Division, to see City lose 1-0, which sent City to 10th place in the division."

    On a rainy fall day, beneath clouds so gray that dawn bleeds into evening, City's training ground still feels pretty bleak. But Balotelli's white Bentley Continental GT brightens the scene, negotiating the narrow drive past a holding pen full of damp autograph hunters and hinting at the transformative impact of Sheik Mansour's money.

    Balotelli parks between the supercars of his gilded colleagues and heads to the changing rooms to prepare for the morning training session. He's come to work in gold-glitter trainers and diamond ear studs, but not the fur-trimmed white cardigan with a skull picked out in rhinestones that he's pictured wearing in many of that day's tabloids. He lopes into reception, passing beneath the billboard proclaiming ABU DHABI TRAVELLERS WELCOME that would seem guaranteed to confuse anyone arriving at the facility for the first time. A 10-year, $643 million sponsorship deal with Abu Dhabi's government-owned Etihad Airways has inscribed the carrier's logo on the players' shirts and their stadium, while City's improved performance inscribed the club's name on the FA Cup, England's most important knockout competition, in 2011 and the Premier League trophy the following year. Three months into the new season, City is ranked third in the league, just after Chelsea and United. Nobody would dismiss its chances of overhauling its rivals by the spring, to carry off the Premiership for a second successive year. "People say, 'You must feel that it's not quite the real thing, [Mansour] paid for success, and that must devalue it.' I've never felt even an iota of that," says Owen.

    The sheik has only once braved the Mancunian climate since he picked up the Blues in 2008 for $241 million in a fire sale as Thai authorities investigated corruption allegations against the previous owner, Thailand's former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But Mansour's investment has lured others from sunnier reaches: Yaya Touré from the Ivory Coast, Pablo Zabaleta from Argentina, David Silva from Spain. In 2009, the Argentine striker Carlos Tevez traveled just a few miles, decamping from United to join City, but later blamed the weather for a bout of blues at the Blues that saw him take unauthorized leave from the club. (He has now rejoined the side.) Last winter he returned to his native country to bask on the beach and in the glow of celebrity, explaining to a chat-show host what he didn't like about Manchester. "The weather, everything. It has nothing," he said.

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