Super Mario has landed!

Only the passing of time will reveal whether or not Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has pulled off an incredible coup by persuading Mario Balotelli to return to English football. Or has he taken an outrageous risk by signing the Italian international who has acquired a reputation for strange behaviour and ill-discipline? Not as strange as a certain Uruguayan perhaps but enough for there to be serious questions raised about his temperament and attitude. Nobody is questioning his ability, it is important to stress that. But he comes as a package and because his psyche is part of that package it cannot be ignored. 

Mario Balotelli’s roots lie in the west African country of Ghana but he was born on the island of Sicily with his family moving to the mainland and the northern Italian province of Brescia when he was still a toddler. Mario went into foster care and eventually took the surname of the family who had fostered him and they became his permanent guardians. Lumezzane is a town in Brescia and it was at that town’s football club, Associazione Calcio Lumezzane, that Balotelli’s playing career began in earnest. But he only spent one year in Lumezzane’s senior squad before Internazionale of Milan signed him and he played in 11 Serie A matches in the 2007/08 season (scoring three times) while still only 17 years old. He did not, however, make Inter’s match-day squad for either of their Champions League matches against Liverpool in the spring of 2008.

2008/09 was the season when he really broke through. He played in 58% of Inter’s league matches (8 goals) and followed that a year later with 26 appearances (9 goals). Inter, who had won the league in 2008, retained their domestic title for the next two years as well. Balotelli was frequently used in European matches, making 14 appearances in the Champions League (2 goals) during the last two of those championship-winning seasons. Inter also won the Champions League in 2010 but Mario played no part in the Madrid final despite appearing in five of the group matches and three of the knock-out matches.

In the middle of August 2010, on his 20th birthday in fact, the striker moved to Manchester City for a massive fee. His new manager was the Italian Roberto Mancini, who had only arrived at City the previous December but who had also been his manager when Balotelli had joined Inter in 2007. It is fair to say that the two had a somewhat fractious relationship until both left Manchester in 2013, the player in January and the manager in May. On the pitch, however, Mario became a firm fans’ favourite and 13 Premier League goals in 2011/12 were a significant factor in City winning their first domestic championship since 1968. He set up the winning goal for Sergio Agüero, whose added-time strike on the final day of the season snatched the trophy out of Manchester United’s hands. This winning assist as a substitute came despite his manager asserting that the player would take no further part in the run-in after he had received a fourth red card of the season only the previous month.

City fined their forward two weeks’ wages for his appalling disciplinary record in 2011/12 but the player fought that decision and took his appeal to a Premier League tribunal. As the clock ticked down to the start of his hearing Balotelli dropped his appeal and agreed to accept the fine imposed by the club. But a parting of the ways was inevitable and at the end of January 2013 the striker returned to a city he was familiar with but this time to play for Associazione Calcio Milan. He was nothing short of sensational in the half-season that remained, scoring twice on his debut against Udinese (including the penalty that won the match four minutes into added-time) and adding a further 10 league goals from only 12 matches before the season ended. Milan finished third behind Juventus and Napoli with the player appearing to be in much better shape, as was his disciplinary record.

In 2013/14 it was more of the same for Mario as he scored 14 times from 30 Serie A matches with four more goals coming in other first-team matches. He had an eventful day when Napoli came to the San Siro early in the season, missing a second-half penalty (which Pepe Reina saved!), scoring Milan’s consolation goal in the last minute of a 2-1 defeat and then receiving a second yellow card shortly after he had scored. But there was no indication that he was really unhappy in Italy so with three years still to run on his Milan contract it was something of a surprise when he was allowed to join Liverpool.

As soon as he reached his 18th birthday Balotelli applied for and was granted Italian citizenship. This wasn’t automatic because he had only been fostered not formally adopted. He could not represent Italy at Under-15 or Under-17 level because he had not at that time become an Italian citizen. Ghana wanted him to play in a London friendly against Senegal in 2007 but he declined saying that his ambition was to play for Italy. He didn’t have to wait long and was soon playing and scoring for Italy’s Under-21 team before inevitably progressing through to his country’s senior team, for whom he made his debut in a post-World Cup friendly against the Ivory Coast in August 2010. At the time of his transfer back to England Balotelli had played over thirty times for his country with his 13 goals including the header that defeated England at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Unexpected though it is, this transfer could be the one that defines Brendan Rodgers’ career as Liverpool manager. It could also become the transfer that defines Mario Balotelli’s career as a player. He has been a regular scorer at his three previous professional clubs. He knows that the modern squad-system will restrict the number of times he plays as will his fitness, form and disciplinary record. But he also knows that at the age of only twenty-four he has years ahead of him to prove that the General Public’s perception of him (in England anyway) had been wrong and that he could contribute heavily to the ambitions of his new club. Certainly his previous experience of competitive European matches could be extremely beneficial as Liverpool Football Club takes its place at Europe’s top table for the first time since the 2009/10 season. 

Balotelli's agent, Mino Raiola, stressed what the striker already knows and might help him to finally settle at a club. When asked whether this was a case of "Last Chance Saloon" for Balotelli's career, Raiola gave an honest answer. “At the top level, yes. It's either make or break now. If it goes wrong? Mario is 24 years old. He no longer has the alibi of his age. Now it’s up to him. Another flop is inadvisable."

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