By CESARE POLENGHI
GOAL.COM MANAGING EDITOR - ASIA
We have already heard and read so much about Mario Balotelli that people at times forget he is only 22. Those who follow football, and even those who don’t, seem to be more amused by his bravado off the pitch than by his skill as a player, therefore often forgetting the fantastic player he is.
It may therefore come as a surprise that the Palermo-born youngster has already helped his former clubs, Manchester City and Inter, to win titles in Italy, Europe and England - nine in total.
His screamer against Brazil in Geneva on Thursday night was reminiscent of his historical brace against Germany at Euro 2012 resulting in him already being propelled into Azzurri folklore. If things stay as they are (or perhaps even get better?) Balotelli will likely spearhead Italy’s attack for another ten years, meaning he could be involved for at least the next two or three World Cups.
Balotelli is good news for Italy and also for Milan and Serie A. He was clearly a heavy investment for the Rossoneri (the whole package came at around €70m), but his return to Milano has contributed greatly to revitalising Milan and has also added quality and interest to an impoverished Italian Championship.
Numbers don’t lie; in six games with Milan, Balotelli has netted seven goals, an astronomical average that has helped supporters forget the recent departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Is he already better than the Swede? As a matter of fact, unlike Ibra, Balotelli knows how to be decisive when it matters: When at Inter, he scored several goals against arch-rivals Juventus; at Manchester City he provided Sergio Aguero with the assist that resulted in a Premier League title, and with Italy, as mentioned above, he single-handedly dragged the team to the final of the European Championships last summer with two memorable goals against Germany.
At Milan, Balotelli is for the first time an undisputed starter having been the understudy to star players such as Eto’o and Tevez for so many years. His recent success is clearly also due to the fact that, in his beloved Milano, this (former?) enfant terrible has finally found the security that he has been searching for.
Milan is one of the best clubs in the world when it comes to protecting their players and thanks to the managerial skills of Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani and their good terms with the media (which, in many cases, Berlusconi actually owns!), one can be sure that Balotelli will be shielded as much as possible from negative press, paparazzi and gossip. Kudos should also go to his agent, Mino Raiola, who engineered a transfer that might have saved his protégée’s career.
Much of the future success of Milan and Italy will depend on the relationship, both on and off the field, between Balotelli and the other Rossoneri starlet, Stephan El Sharaawy. If the two can find the balance both as players and as friends, we’re set for a partnership that has the potential to become the stuff of legend.
Besides football, Balotelli and Er Sharaawy also have an important social role to play in the growth of Italian society. Both of African origin (Mario is of Ghanaian ancestry, while the Stephan “the Pharaoh” has Egyptian parents), they can become the poster-boys for racial integration.
Immigration from Africa came late to Italy and became a social phenomenon only in the 1980s. After decades of discrimination and troubles, football can become the ultimate validator for this early generation of African-origin Italians, with the Milan the testimonial of success.
A few years ago, Jose Mourinho famously remarked in an interview how Balotelli “sometimes does not know how to use his brain.” Yet, listening to the Milan striker talking as the team leader after their victory over Palermo last Sunday, one got the impression that those days are finally gone and both Milan and Italy have found themselves a new icon.