No one doubted his talent, but many doubted whether he would ever be able to turn his gifts into tangible rewards.
It was that conspicuous failure to master his own unruly personality and convert promise into goals and influence which led to his departure for AC Milan in the last January transfer window. As with his first spell in Milan with rivals Inter, where he fell out with manager Jose Mourinho, fellow players, fans and even his agent, his time in England was marked by suspensions, rows and ructions. Not only did he fight on the training ground with an exasperated manager who had recently described him as “like one of my children”, he even took his own club to a Premier League tribunal after they fined him two weeks’ wages for his dire disciplinary record. If there was one thing which defined his time in Manchester, it was a bristling and self-defeating hubris.
Yet if he left England largely unloved and unlamented, back in Italy Balotelli was feted upon his return. Milan’s vice-president, Adriano Galliani, said that “Balotelli in Rossoneri is a dream that has been realised – it is a transfer that everyone wanted: club, president and fans.” In Italy, there was a far more laissez-faire attitude towards his antics, especially as the more recent nonsense had occurred in England and because for many of his countrymen their most recent experience of Balotelli was as the sublime talent who had scored both goals when the Azzurri beat the Germans 2-1 in the European Championship semi-finals. Indeed, he remains so popular that pollsters reckoned AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi would get an extra 400,000 votes as a reward for signing him.
Balotelli has certainly repaid the faith in spades, and did so from the moment his boots touched Italian terra firma. Since his arrival in late January, Balotelli has been repaying that ¤20 million transfer fee, an outlay that is beginning to look like a bargain fee. In his first match for the Rossoneri he was not only in imperious form but scored two goals, including a late-minute penalty, in the 2-1 win over Udinese. Since then, his form for the San Siro club has been unceasingly impressive. In the next two matches he scored two goals – one of them a spectacular 30-metre free-kick against Parma – to equal Oliver Bierhoff’s record of four goals in his first three matches for AC Milan.
By the end of last season he had scored 12 goals in 12 domestic appearances, with Milan remaining unbeaten for six months when Balotelli was in the starting line-up. But not only has he been banging in goals – before last night he had played twice in Serie A this season and got off the mark against Cagliari, as well as scoring in the Champions League qualifiers – he has also displayed a creativity in the final third that was largely missing in Manchester (although he did supply the pass to Sergio Aguero for that goal against QPR), which is reminiscent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and which has been the key to Milan’s remarkable upturn in form. His burgeoning partnership with 20-year-old striker Stephan El Shaarawy could become one of European football’s most lethal and enduring strike partnerships.
Almost as importantly, the petulance that was the hallmark of his time in England seems to have given way to a more mature attitude; certainly Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri has endured none of the histrionics that Mancini was faced with at Manchester City.
That change in attitude has also seen him become the main man for Italy, with his recent goals against Mexico and Japan in the Confederations Cup, plus impressive all-round performances, underlining his importance to the Azzurri as effectively as their drop in form once Balotelli was injured. He was central to Italy’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup, scoring both goals as Italy beat Malta, and also scoring against Denmark and the winning goal against the Czech Republic last Tuesday which sealed the Italians’ place at the finals in Brazil.
Indeed, Balotelli’s form has been so prolific that the 23-year-old striker has developed stellar ambitions, which he believes he can turn into reality through the Champions League. “I want to be the best player in Europe and I want to prove that this season,” he said. “I only rate Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo above me, but that can change this season. I am playing good football with Milan and I want to be number one in Europe. To do that, I must perform well in the Champions League.
“We have a tough group. Barcelona are Barcelona and Ajax have some good young players. The atmosphere that Celtic make in Europe is famous, so we also know to expect a tough game. Kaka has told us about the games he has played in for Milan against Celtic. He has warned us it will be tough. Especially so in Scotland with the atmosphere they create. To play in atmospheres that are intense is when I play my best football.”
Few at Celtic Park are in any doubt at just how good a player Balotelli is, and just how important it will be to shackle him when the two sides meet at San Siro on Wednesday. Milan can fashion goals from several quarters, but for Celtic manager Neil Lennon, the former Manchester City player presents the clearest threat.
“He is a superb player,” said Lennon. “I like him and I like his style. If he hits his top form he is going to be very hard to contain. He is their main striker and a lot of good things come through him. They also have El Shaawary and [Alessandro] Matri, who we know about. [Sulley] Muntari can get goals too and they have [Riccardo] Montolivo. They are a very strong side but we feel we can cause them problems.”
Sadly for Celtic, since arriving at Milan, Balotelli has become a far less impulsive player, although he did manage to get himself sent off in a World Cup qualifier against the Czechs in June. The perception that he still has a very short fuse remains, however, which has seen him suffer provocation in the form of a succession of highly dubious tackles and some ugly episodes of persistent racial barracking.
Still, even on that front Balotelli has the ability to surprise by behaving in a way that defies all logic. When recently invited to meet Cecile Kyenge, the embattled Italian minister for integration, who had invited the whole Italian squad to come and talk to her about racism in sport, the Brescian, who claims to have political aspirations, opted to catch some extra sleep instead.
“Balotelli said he did not come because he preferred to sleep, so we must respect his transparency,” said Kyenge, who has campaigned for the children of immigrants born in Italy to be eligible for Italian citizenship, which they are not at the moment [despite being born in Italy, Balotelli was only eligible to apply to be an Italian citizen on his 18th birthday]. “For me Balotelli was a person I wanted to see, but I also wanted to meet the whole squad.”
His own man, to the very end – as unpredictable off the pitch as he now is on it.