As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
Can Italy control their mercurial, enigmatic and unpredictable striker?
The Azurri will be counting heavily on Mario Balotelli to provide the goals in their hopes of winning the World Cup for a fifth time. But how much can they rely on a player who is capable of brilliance one minute and stupidity the next? Balotelli can amaze you with his goalscoring exploits and have you shaking your head with disgust at his crazy antics all in one match. Such is life for perhaps the most controversial footballer in the world today. His agility, strength, quickness and technical skills can be overshadowed by his temperament, attitude and lack of discipline.
Balotelli (nicknamed Super Mario) is never one to shy away from the limelight – both on and off the field. Whether it’s his trademark mohawk, his crazy celebrations after scoring a goal (complete with jersey tossing and body building pose), or getting engaged to his girlfriend just before the World Cup, Balotelli makes sure that he is always in the news and that the world will always be watching to see what he does next.
Never will the audience be any bigger!
Before Going Pro
Mario Barwuah was born in Palermo, Italy to Ghanaian immigrants on August 12 1990. He was placed into foster care at the age of three to a Jewish-Italian family, the Balotellis. He would eventually adopt the Balotelli surname as the family became his permanent foster parents. He officially became an Italian citizen on August 13 2008 at the age of 18.
Balotelli began his footballing career at Lumezzane, where he made his first team debut at the age of 15, a Serie C match against Padova on April 2 2006. Later that year he was signed on loan by Internazionale (Inter Milan).
Balotelli made his first team (and Serie A) debut as a substitute on December 16 2007 in a 2-0 win against Caligari. He made his first start three days later against Reggina in a Coppa Italia match, scoring a brace in a 4-1 victory. He scored his first Serie A goal in April 2008 against Atalanta in a 2-0 away win, as Inter Milan would go on to win the 2007-08 Serie A. The following two seasons however were marked by disciplinary problems, clashes with manager Jose Mourinho, racial abuse from opposing fans, and several on-field incidents. By 2010 the club’s patience was beginning to run out, at which time some Premier League clubs (such as Manchester United and City) began showing interest in the striker. Balotelli would end his Inter career with 28 goals in 86 appearances.
On August 12 2010, Inter agreed on a transfer deal with Manchester City for the striker. He made his Premier League debut on October 24 as a substitute in a 3-0 win home loss to Arsenal. Balotelli won the Golden Boy Award (given for the best young player in Europe) in December of that year. Despite continued disciplinary issues, it was a successful first season for the Italian, culminating with a man of the match performance in the 2011 FA Cup Final win over Stoke City. The victory marked City’s first trophy in 35 years. The following season brought more disciplinary issues for the striker, including four red cards. Following his fourth red card against Arsenal in April 2012, manager Roberto Mancini vowed Balotelli would not play for the team for the remainder of the season. Balotelli did make an appearance in the final league match of the 2011-2012 season as a substitute against Queens Park Rangers. His match-winning assist in injury-time gave City their first league title in 44 years. Balotelli’s behavior grew worse the following season and during the January transfer window of the 2012-13 season, City agreed to a deal to send him to AC Milan.
Balotelli scored two goals on his Milan debut, including a last minute penalty in a 2-1 victory over Udinese. The striker ended the second half of the 2012-13 season with 12 goals in 13 matches for Milan, helping them earn qualification for the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League.
Balotelli did not represent Italy at the under-15 and under-17 level as he was still considered a Ghanaian immigrant. Ghana called him up with the senior team in 2007, which he declined citing his willingness to represent Italy. Balotelli was called to Italy’s under-21 squad two weeks after receiving his Italian citizenship. He scored a goal on his debut in a 1-1 draw against Greece on September 5 2008.
Balotelli debuted for the Italian senior team on August 10 2010. He became the first black player to appear in Italy in a major tournament in 2012 (Euro 2012). He started the tournament slowly squandering multiple goal-scoring opportunities, but in the semi-final against Germany scored both goals for the Azurri in their 2-1 win. Italy would lose 4-0 to Spain in the final. Following Euro 2012, Balotelli became the team’s first choice striker during Italy’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. His impressive goal-scoring form helped the Azurri top their qualifying group.
In the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, Balotelli scored two goals in three matches during the group stage to help Italy qualify for the semifinals against Spain. Unfortunately he was unable to play due to a thigh injury and Italy lost to Spain on penalties.