Mario Balotelli has to be the oldest 22-year-old in the world, having dealt with a host of hardships nobody his age should have to endure.
It all began as an infant when he nearly died due to a problem with his intestines. Since then, he’s become estranged from his biological parents, been the victim of the ugliest racial abuse imaginable, used as fodder by the English tabloid press, and suffered the indignity of having to wait until his 18th birthday to request Italian citizenship – even though he was born and raised in Italy.
Really, is it any wonder that from time to time he’s displayed "an attitude" or that he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder?
Granted, Super Mario can be his own worst enemy, sometimes acting as a petulant child after being subbed out or when a referee’s decision does not go his way.
But his tenure at Manchester City was marked by him being targeted by the English media, who continually focused on his off-the-field exploits by making mountains out of molehills. Balotelli made good copy and sold newspapers, and if the narrative of him being an out-of-control wild child wasn’t entirely true, well, that was just an inconvenient obstacle to be hurdled.
Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised, then, that he failed to impress this season for City, limited to just one goal in 14 appearances as he fell out of favour with Roberto Mancini.
Still, great things were expected of Balotelli, especially after a Euro 2012 campaign that saw him put in tour de force performances for the Azzurri, including his two-goal effort that destroyed the Germans in the semifinals.
So maybe his recent transfer to AC Milan will mark his renaissance, a new opportunity to shine and firmly re-establish himself for both club and country.
The Balotelli rebirth began in earnest on Sunday, when he marked his Milan debut with a pair of goals in a win over Udinese.
Then on Wednesday he was in the starting 11 for Italy in a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands in a friendly in Amsterdam. Balotelli was subbed out in the 60th minute after having a quiet night, although he did show the odd flash of brilliance and deft skill.
All of the defining Balotelli traits were on display against the Dutch, albeit in a somewhat muted tones: the agility, the speed, the power, the strength and the technical ability. The only thing missing were the goals.
Twice he crumpled to the ground under heavy challenges early in the contest. The second time he needed to seek treatment on the sidelines for a bloody knee. In both instances he simply shrugged it off and got back to business without fuss.
Only once did he let his emotions get the better of him, somehow avoiding a yellow card in the second half for kicking the ball in frustration after the whistle. No doubt his many detractors will pounce on that and blow it up bigger than it was, pointing to it as evidence that he still hasn’t matured.
But seriously, who among us was fully grown up and mature when they were 22? It’s time to relax a bit and cut the guy some slack, instead of dissecting every one of his supposed mis-steps to death.
If anything, it was nice to see that bit of fire from the young Italian, who has several things working in his favour now that he’s back earning a living in his native land.
For one, he’s plying his trade with AC Milan, the club he supported as a child, so he’s in a good place and won’t need any extra motivation to succeed.
Second, Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri will look to Balotelli to lead the line for the Rossoneri. By heaping a huge load of responsibility on Balotelli’s broad shoulders, Allegri is making no bones about the fact that he trusts the young striker, which should also do wonders for his confidence.
One of the reasons Balotelli didn’t thrive at Manchester City was because there was too much competition at the forward position. Mancini had so many options, which means Balotelli had to fight for playing time. That won’t be the case in Milan, where he’ll be the focal point of the attack.
If he can’t thrive in this situation at Milan, then he can’t thrive anywhere.
At Milan, Balotelli is expected to play alongside Stephan El Shaarawy, who he just happened to partner with in a 4-3-3 formation against the Dutch on Wednesday. Both Balotelli and Shaarawy are considered major options for Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, and if the young pair can develop some chemistry and form an effective partnership for Milan, there’s no reason to believe that they won’t be given the chance to lead the way for the Azzurri.
What’s more, Italy does not have nearly the same tradition of tabloid media as England. The Italian press can be obtrusive and invasive, but to its credit it focuses on matters on the field. Balotelli can walk around Milan and hit the night clubs safe in the knowledge that he won’t get hounded by tabloid journalists, or have photographers camped outside his home going through his garbage.
There is, however, the rather small matter of dealing with overt racism.
Italy is a lot of things, but a multicultural and pluralistic country it isn’t. Sadly, Balotelli was the victim of racist abuse and monkey chants from fans during his previous stint in Serie A with Inter Milan – Juventus supporters once infamously serenaded him with chants of “There are no black Italians.”
And just this week, Paolo Berlusconi (brother of Milan owner and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) caused controversy when speaking at a rally, telling the audience he was looking forward to seeing “the family’s little black boy” play for the Rossoneri.
It was hardly the ideal welcome home for Balotelli, but even this should be viewed as an opportunity for him to take on the racists directly and bring Italy’s problem of racial intolerance to the forefront. This is how change is affected, and he is now in a prime position to start a national dialogue on the country’s pressing race issues.
The move to AC Milan means Balotelli has so many things working in his favour. Now, it’s time to deliver, both on and off the field.