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Mario Balotelli is by no means an ordinary Italian teenager. At 19-years-old he is already known across the world as a football superstar with the potential to become one of the most gifted players of his generation.
His superb talent has led to him become affectionately nick-named “Super Mario” by those who adore him. However, there is another side to the teenage prodigy, a petulant side to his character which has drawn strong criticism from opposition, supporters, and on numerous occasions, his own coach.
The biggest factor in Balotelli’s story though, the thing that separates him from becoming an Italian legend, is the colour of his skin. For sure, he is Italy’s first high profile black footballer, and he has suffered because of it.
Balotelli was born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents who abandoned him when he was an infant. He was raised in Brescia by adopted Italian parents and has a strong Brescian accent because of it.
His career began in the Italian third division when he made his debut as a 15-year-old for Lumezzane. Soon afterwards he was signed on loan by Internazionale in 2006 with the option to buy him permanently. He impressed the club so much that he made his first team debut the following year.
Ever since his first game for the club it has been impossible to take your eyes off the talented youngster. He spectacularly came on as a substitute in the 2008 Supercoppa final against Roma to score in the 83rd minute and take the match into extra time. Inter went on to lift the trophy after winning 6–5 on penalties.
However, his success is often overshadowed by his clear gamesmanship. The most memorable example of this was during a match against Juventus when the Brazilian midfielder Felipe Melo elbowed Balotelli in the chest. The Italian chose to collapse to the ground clutching his face instead though. The referee gave Melo a red card, and almost immediately afterwards Balotelli jumped to his feet, seemingly unscathed.
It is the fans of the same opponents from Turin that Balotelli has received the brunt of his criticism from. He has received the general abuse one would expect from opposition fans. However, he has also received repugnant chants of a racist nature such as “a black Italian does not exist” and “Balotelli, black piece of s***.”
Juventus have been deservedly punished for their failure to control their fans’ behaviour. Fines have been handed to the club and they were also forced to play behind closed doors without supporters for a game.
Internazionale’s coach, Jose Mourinho, has also criticised the teenager for his lack of effort in training and during matches. He rues the possibility that Balotelli could be wasting his potential by picking petty fights and arguments when he could be showcasing his talent instead.
Mourinho substituted him in the latter stages of their recent 1-0 victory in the first-leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final match against Fiorentina after he chose not to help defend an opposing attack. Rather than accept Mourinho’s decision and sit on the bench, Balotelli threw the gloves he was wearing to the ground and stormed down the tunnel.
It is no secret that racism is a huge problem in Italian football, but Balotelli’s case has been brought to attention again after racist chants at a lower league match led to a team leaving the pitch in protest.
The team made the decision after one of their players of Nigerian origin and his brother were racially abused for the fourth time this season. Not only were fans and opposing players involved in the chanting, but even more worryingly, the match referee was too. The team stood up for their values and forfeited the game in order to make a stand against racism.
Serie A may be a far cry from the lower divisions in Italy, but one has to think that if Balotelli put his petulant teenage angst to one side and focused on fulfilling his talent, perhaps he could become the role model to create a new footballing culture across the country.