The return of the prodigal

Sports & Entertainment Editor
The Playing Field

‘Respect the opponent, Respect Diversity, Respect The Game’- thus goes the motto of Euro 2012's 'Respect' campaign that highlights UEFA's continuous commitment to combat any form of discrimination. How ironic that UEFA Euro 2012 witnessed Mario Balotelli - the first black player to play for the Italian national football team, the 'adopted' destiny's child married to notoriety - earn high respect from his teammates and countrymen for his brilliant exhibit of talent, that took Italy to the finals. Balotelli's double against Germany serve as a topping for UEFA's Respect Diversity campaign.

Life has not been a crystal stair for this 21-year-old Italian citizen of Ghanaian descent. A deadly cocktail of talent and misdemeanor, that's Mario Balotelli. Talk about altercations, red cards and suspensions, the answer will be Mario – an immature ‘big kid’ who claims “I’m more a man than Peter Pan.”

If wackiness is the evil twin of genius, then Mario fits perfectly into that class. He is a natural with the ball who is endowed with foresight and agility once he steps on the ground; yet  his insolent and outlandish behavior both on and off its radar makes him even more famous. Mario Balotelli constitutes the yin and the yang.

He is artful with the ball, possesses acrobatic skills and rarely fumbles in front of the goal post. It's sheer joy to watch him toss the ball forward and reach there with the pace of a sprinter to seize it before the opponents. His goal against Ireland in the round robin was pure genius.  At 18, during his debut season at Internazionale, Balotelli scored 7 goals in 15 appearances; yet incurred the wrath of manager Jose Mourinho by succumbing to his craving to 'earn' yellow cards with the silliest fouls, and by turning a blind eye during the practise sessions. He was more like a backbencher who is too smart to be confined to the classroom walls.

Mario Balotelli reacts during a training session during the Euro 2012. (Reuters)

Mario's attitude was too hard even for the 'Special One' to grapple. When it comes to him, there was no scope for a middle ground. Seek Mario, and thou shall find him in the extremes.

Only his mentor Roberto Mancini could tame him, that too only to a certain extent. His move to Mancini’s Manchester City did help him find a ground finally; but that didn't mean saying goodbye to troubles.

Did his rebelliousness stem out of his existential issues? Being different is not easy. He has been scorned by the Italians - especially Juventus fans for his abrasive ways. It seems never ending. Today's headline of Turin daily Tuttosport reads: "Li Abbiamo Fatti Neri", meaning "We have made them black". And this was after another Italian sports daily, La Gazzetta dello Sport ran a cartoon featuring Balotelli as King Kong. It's indeed unfortunate that Mario has to face racial abuse from his countrymen more than anyone,  the ones who conveniently stay blind to his heroic efforts. Why?

His T-shirt reads: "Why always me?". In his own words:

“I think I am a genius, but not a rebel. I have my life, my world, I do what I want, without annoying anyone. I believe I am more intelligent than the average person. The talent God gave me is beautiful and wonderful, but it is difficult because you are always facing other people keen to judge you."

Indeed he is. And for once, his talent has transcended his brazenness. Euro 2012 has just seen the return of a prodigal. Back home in Italy, the people who detested him once are finding themselves in an awkward position right now. It's just a matter of few steps between the cup and the lip for Italy. And they should be thanking the unpredictable Supermario for that. If the lone ranger could withstand the Spanish Armada,  the same lot who cast him will be forced to accept him. Rest would be history; HIS story alone...