Mario Balotelli is a treasure worth salvaging. By Matteo Bonetti.
By Matteo Bonetti
"Non ho mai visto un giocatore come lui" (I've never seen a player like him).
These were the words uttered by former Lumezzane coach Sandro Salvioni , who oversaw Mario Balotelli's introduction to the soccer world when he made his debut as a promising 15-year-old for the Serie C side away at Padova. Salvioni could hardly contain his praise for a player who he knew all too well outside the pitch.
"He was a jokester in the lockerroom, far away from the player that the media portrays nowadays," Salvioni said.
Unfortunately, Balotelli's age was not a shield from racial abuse, as the fans in Padova engaged in deplorable behavior by shouting monkey chants every time he received the ball.
That was only seven years ago. Now, Balotelli has emerged as one of the most polarizing Italian athletes of all time. Constantly under the microscope, he has evolved as an easy target for the media. Whether it's trying to recreate the Macy's Parade with fireworks from his Manchester bathroom or needing concise instructions on how exactly to remove a training kit, it seems most of Super Mario's appearances occur on a tabloid rather than in Mancini's top 11. However, this has not deterred potential suitors AC Milan from showing interest.
We've all read articles trying to psychoanalyze Balotelli's persona. Trying to correlate the impacts of growing up in an area shrouded in racism and ignorance, and how his unique upbringing ultimately molded his misunderstood temperament.
Many thought Roberto Mancini would be the one to salvage Balo's fledgling career. The coach who has been labeled as "Papá" by the player himself. Instead, Mario's time in Manchester has yielded a series of turbulent off field events. The spotlight this year has seldom really centered around his on-field performances, and understandably so. This year he has only managed one league goal, and a plethora of disheartening performances which come with inconsistent playing time.
So why isn't it working? Why aren't we seeing the flamboyant, unstoppable hitman who lit up the Euro 2012 competition by spearheading the Azzurri attack? Only a few months removed from that famous brace against Germany , which was perhaps his greatest performance as a professional athlete, Mario can now be seen slumped at the end of the City bench (when he isn't doing the tango with Mancini in practice).
For starters, he hasn't exactly had a smooth transition with his life in England. As it happens with so many Italians abroad, the nostalgia can often times be overwhelming. Far away from his comfort zone in the quiet Lombard town of Brescia , Balotelli has seemingly had enough of the Manchester way of life. We've heard him complain about the tabloids, the food, the weather and many other nuisances which have caused him to sometimes feel like a hermit.
Strangely enough, it seems that the only coach who has consistently gotten a superb effort from Super Mario is Italian National team ''Mister'' Cesare Prandelli. He was the one who gave bad boys Balotelli and Antonio Cassano a chance after Marcello Lippi famously snubbed them in his unsuccessful second reign with the Azzurri. Prandelli's faith in the talismanic duo was repaid, as Italy became one of the most electrifying sides in the tournament. Add to the fact Balotelli was a fervent AC Milan supporter growing up and you start to see a pattern unfolding -- perhaps the only way we will ever get to see the true evolution of his world class talent is if he returns to his homeland for a second stint. Whether or not donning the colors he supported throughout his childhood will be the metaphorical spark that will ignite him into superstardom still remains under review. What we know for sure, however, is that the world will be transfixed on his next decision.
Italy better hurry. There is only one more week to bring their golden boy back to Mamma e Papá."