Mario Balotelli: lives a soap opera life. Photo: Reuters
Beyond a celebrity soap opera that surrounds the Italy striker, home politicians appreciate his importance, writes Ian Chadband.
During an Italian national team training camp in Coverciano last month, Mario Balotelli was forced to endure the sickening experience of having racist bile spat at him.
For years, Balotelli had routinely suffered this kind of filth from opposition fans in Serie A.
Mario Balotelli: an important figurehead in his country. Photo: Reuters
Yet this was different, hatefully so. It was from Italy's own followers, from a group of youngsters he might have hoped by now to have helped drag out of the dark ages. Imagine just how depressing that must have been for the Azzurri's first born-and-bred black footballing superstar.
There was a time when the 23-year-old might have offered a sulphurous riposte to his tormentors - and not a soul could have blamed him. But his dignified response, in just offering a wry smile, ignoring the antediluvian morons and letting the police sort the matter, demonstrated admirable restraint.
When Cecile Kyenge, Italy's pioneering former minister for integration and the country's first black cabinet minister, heard of this, she saluted Balotelli. "I commented by showing a photo of myself wearing a Nazionale shirt and a simple phrase: 'To Mario Balotelli: yesterday, you did well to respond to the racist insults with a smile. We will win. Good luck for the World Cup to the whole team. Italy will cheer for you!"
Kyenge understands because she has been where Balotelli has been, a black Italian trailblazer who had to make her historic breakthrough in the political field while suffering the same sort of racism and abuse that has confronted Balotelli as he approaches his debut World Cup.
The hatred that Kyenge, a Congolese ophthalmologist who married an engineer in Italy, faced from the far right during her political rise was distressing. One town mayor had to apologise for suggesting she frequented areas used by prostitutes, while a senior political opponent likened her to an orang-utan, and she had bananas thrown at her on a podium.
It is easy to forget, amid his riches and fame and, occasionally, personal life, that in his own way Balotelli's path has been forged through similar poison. Those who have only ever seen him as a clown, madman or spoiled brat should be reminded of the singular pressures that must have shaped this man, being told as he was at every turn by xenophobes in the stands: "There's no such thing as a black Italian."
"Balotelli represents an important figure for many young second generation black people and new Italians because they recognise themselves in his life story," Kyenge told The Daily Telegraph.
The tale of the boy who was born in Sicily to impoverished Ghanaian parents in 1990 and went on to make a remarkable success of his new life after being given up at the age of two for adoption to an Italian family in northern Italy remains, Kyenge feels, an inspiration to many.
"His success was achieved thanks to his strength and his journey for integration, and is a stimulus for many young people," said Kyenge. "He doesn't have an easy life being a trailblazer but despite his youth and many obstacles, he manages, in his own way, to hold on."
There are those in Italy and at Manchester City who grew weary of the controversy he attracted, and the "Why Always Me?" laments. Why always Mario? Because many believe Mario wants it to be about him.
Who else, in a week when the Azzurri begin their World Cup campaign, would choose to propose to fiancee Fanny Neguesha and then post the news of her response on social media. "She said yes. The most important yes in my life," he gushed. "Je t'aime my WIFE."
This is one of the many Balotelli paradoxes. How could a man whose embracing of his celebrity existence, a daily soap opera of gossip, froth and nonsense in Italy, also be such a seriously important figure there?
"You can't overblow that significance," says John Foot, professor of modern Italian history at Bristol University, who has written a history of Italian football. "Even when they're talking about reforming the citizenship laws in Italy, they call it the Balotelli law.
"He's not just a footballer there, he's much, much more than that. He's a massive symbol. He represents the future, which, actually, is already the present. There's a whole series of second generation black players coming through in Italy and that critical mass will make the difference; it will mean Balotelli is not the only trailblazer any more. Being the one black born-and-bred Italian is an enormous pressure to deal with."
Yet the pressure has only increased on Balotelli since Euro 2012, when his goals, which took the Azzurri to the final, assumed what Foot calls "immense symbolic power, a sign that black Italians were here to stay, something which a strong minority of Italians have found very difficult to accept."
Then, Balotelli was the innovator, the history-maker. Now it is different; as a footballer, he is expected to be the leader but his inconsistency with Milan does not inspire trust from the Italian public.
Clarence Seedorf, his manager at AC Milan until his sacking this week, noted earlier in the year his belief that Balotelli "isn't a champion yet". Is now the time to correct that? Alessandra Bocci, who covers Milan for Gazzetta dello Sport, has no doubt. "He's the main character of our national team, the centre of Italian football at the moment.
"The others are not so strong characters. I can't imagine a Ciro Immobile or Alessio Cerci in a World Cup final, but I could imagine Mario there. He is so arrogant on the pitch, and sometimes that's a good quality for a champion, aware of his power and skill. It's unimaginable to think of our World Cup team without Mario at the moment."
So, what about the popular idea that coach Cesare Prandelli might give Immobile the chance to be the new Toto Schillaci by picking him ahead of Balotelli for Saturday's match? No way, says Bocci. It is just the coach's way of trying to galvanise his key man, a striker who even in a season when he has supposedly been hit-and-miss still scored 18 in all competitions for Milan. Sometimes, says Bocci, it seems Italy is bored by all the controversy surrounding Balotelli. In England, we tittered about him; in Italy, it sounds as if they tut.
One minute, it is Mario having another nightclub scuffle; or it is Mario battling with an ex-girlfriend to get access to the daughter he once denied was his; or it is Mario posing preposterously as Christ the Redeemer in Rio; or it is Mario having a row with TV pundits. "You know nothing about football. Trust me," he told former Italian international, Giancarlo Marocchi with majestic chutzpah.
"But we need him," said Bocci. "Maybe sometimes we don't like his regrets and complaints and all the things he does to justify himself but we know also that we can't go on without him. We hate him and we love him."
If Balotelli has the kind of moments he enjoyed in the summer of 2012, it could be another landmark in Italian sport. The image of him hugging his white adoptive mum Silvia in the stands in Warsaw after his two goals sank Germany felt like a watershed.
Foot remembers how he addressed a bunch of kids in Italy around that time and was struck by how many youngsters, white or black, just wanted to be the next Balotelli, such was his impact.
"Here was a black man who could not have seemed more Italian," says Bocci. "Because he's also sometimes mad, unpredictable, full of fantasy, all of those sort of things you expect with Italian people."
And now his country demands even more from him. "I think it would have an enormous impact if he was to have a big World Cup," said Foot. Because of who he is, though, Balotelli would be the easiest of scapegoats if Italy foul up.
Kyenge, though, has nothing but confidence in him. "His presence is already an invaluable help," she said, when asked if she felt Balotelli could have done more to help the cause of a multiracial Italy. "Mario is not obliged to carry the flag of multiculturalism, as he represents a useful route to the cause with his presence and actions."
She is, though, unlike some in Italy, not about to load any more pressure of expectation on him. Asked what message another Balotelli success story in Brazil might offer to Italy's black youth, she said: "Leaving his colour aside, Mario represents Italy and his message of pride should be transmitted to all. Italy is ready."
The Telegraph, London