Hero to zero is a well-trodden path, but the man whose two glorious goals against Germany took Italy to the final of the European championship two years ago has descended it with almost breakneck speed. World Cup humiliation was the final straw and all the half-concealed prejudices were brought out in the open again.
“Balotelli you are not Italian,” came the familiar refrain, and even “There’s no such thing as a black Italian.” To which he responded, via internet: “I’m 23 and I didn’t choose to be Italian — I wanted to be because I was born in Italy and have always lived in Italy.”
It didn’t stop the abuse. An old enemy, Matteo Salvini, secretary of the right-wing Northern League, was at it again as the news of Mario’s departure came through. “I’m happy,” he said, “I’ve been saying for a year that Balotelli can do great things in the pitch but doesn’t have a head.” Veteran TV newscaster Emilio Fede announced: “Berlusconi has sold him not for financial reasons but because he’s concluded that he is no longer manageable.”
As others joined in, columnist Andrea Scanzi, usually a friendly voice, observed: “The Balotelli transfer has united Italy in a way that no politician has ever managed to do.”
Bruised and battered after a poor season at Milan, Balotelli returns to the Premier League having reached a new low.
But while this is a gamble for Liverpool, and for Brendan Rodgers in particular, there’s enough character in the player, as well as ability, to suggest it could pay off.
Balotelli is a much more complex person than appearances suggest. Mixed-up perhaps, still an adolescent in some ways, but also capable of responding with determination if handled in the right way.
For Roberto Mancini, he’s similar to Luis Suarez: “Partly he looks for trouble but there’s aggression towards him too. There’s no argument about him as a player though: he’s world class.”
Tough love was Mancini’s idea: “I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head.”
But Balotelli, unlike Suarez, is not the product of a tough upbringing. His character was moulded by a very caring, successful middle-class adoptive family after he was essentially abandoned by his natural mother.
However his upbringing also helped create some psychological problems. He grew up with the uncertainty and the stigma of not being properly adopted and not having the right to citizenship in the country where he was born until he was 18.
His adopted city of Brescia has become one of the strongholds of the Northern League, never shy of playing the race card – against foreigners, and against immigrants from the south. It wasn’t easy for a black kid born in Sicily and part of a white family. Even more complex when you learn that your mother’s mother was forced to flee her home in Silesia, the German-speaking part of Poland, because she was Jewish.
Mario’s sister Cristina is a business journalist and was already 19 when he became part of her family at the age of three — in effect another mother. She’s been a good counsellor to him over the years and her analysis is fairly simple: “He likes to be among people who don’t judge him.”
That is a problem, because wherever he goes Balotelli seems to invite judgements. He’s given to making extravagant gestures which has earned him publicity, not always favourable, but like other footballers with an African background he does have a social conscience.
José Mourinho describes his two years working with Mario as: “good fun... not a drama, but a comedy”. It’s hard to imagine someone as exacting as Mourinho being sufficiently patient, but he claims his solution was just being himself, and being honest. When Balotelli is out of the limelight he’s much more at his ease.
For Rodgers and his psychological adviser Steve Peters there is a challenge, but not one that should be exaggerated. Balotelli does not have a malevolent streak, unlike Suarez. But he does need some rules in his life, which is no doubt why Liverpool have been insisting on a disciplinary code.
Will that work? Initially the answer is probably yes, assuming the same standards apply to others. Italy manager Cesare Prandelli also set standards for his players and Balotelli responded well.
What went wrong may have been more the result of a dysfunctional Milan team and management: after all he was a tremendous success during his first months at the club. The question is whether this new relationship in Mario’s life can be sustained after the initial honeymoon period. Perhaps Dr Peters should consider retaining big sister Cristina as a consultant.