Man-child Balotelli still learning

Italy striker Mario Balotelli celebrates a goal against Germany during their Euro 2012 semifinal...

Italy striker Mario Balotelli celebrates a goal against Germany during their Euro 2012 semifinal match at National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland, June 28, 2012. (KAI PFAFFENBACH/Reuters)

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:35 PM ET

WARSAW - He has been called many things, some that can't be repeated here.

He is either loved or hated, is of interest to millions because he creates a train wreck or wonderful soccer.

In a few short years, Mario Balotelli has become arguably the most polarizing figure in Italian national soccer team history.

It may because of the era we live in when players are no longer careful what they say or do. It may be the extraordinary coverage public figures get in the media. Or it may simply be that he is a lightning rod for controversy, a man-child thrust into the world spotlight.

Balotelli is being forced to run before he has learned to walk.

Today, the Italian striker is a hero in his home country. His two stunning strikes against Germany gave Italy a berth in the Euro 2012 final against Spain.

In the time compendium that is international soccer, that may last only until after the final. A good performance strengthens his hold on the masses. But with a poor performance, he yet again becomes Balotelli the Unpredictable.

For now, though, Balotelli is simply The One, The Next Coming.

And so that is the puzzle that teammates, coaches and soccer fans have tried to put together. Who is Mario Balotelli?

Balotelli isn't so complex on the pitch. He is a man with enormous talent, some of it refined, some of it raw. When he's in the mood to play, he's trouble for the best defenders in the world. When the mood doesn't strike him, for whatever reason that may be, he's more a distraction than asset.

He won't celebrate his 22nd birthday for another month. So his inconsistency shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

He's big, strong and has good pace for a man his size. Balotelli has tremendous power in his feet and has a knack for getting into scoring positions. He doesn't score as often as he should but that, too, is not unusual in a player so young. Part of becoming a good goal scorer is being able to control your emotions.

And that is where Balotelli becomes more complex. No one knows when the man is going to explode ... or implode

"He is a player with skills but is very sensitive," said an Italian journalist who covers Balotelli regularly. "He always feels someone is not being nice to him or is feeling people are saying bad things to him."

Balotelli gave everyone a glimpse of that after he scored a pair of goals for Manchester City and lifted his jersey to reveal another shirt with 'Why Always me?' written on it. He was asked if he thought he would score, which is why he prepared the shirt.

"I thought I was going to score three," he said. "The T-shirt was just a message. It's not a question that people (ask) me, it's a question that I (ask) to them. It was to all the people that talk bad about me and say stuff not nice and they don't know me so [I was] asking, 'Why always me, like, why always me?'"

Balotelli is also troubled by the constant racial abuse fans direct at him. It hurts him and adds to his seething desire to strike back in one way or another.

It leads Balotelli to lash out or do things that are impetuous without thinking of the ramifications.

Balotelli was born Mario Barwuah to Ghanaian parents in Palermo. He was adopted by the Balotellis when he was three because of health issues with his birth family.

He began his professional career at 15 with Lumezzane before making the jump to Inter Milan of the Italian Serie A a year later. He played there for four years before heading to Manchester City of the English Premier League.

His professional career has been a constant stream of headlines, some good, many not so good. Balotelli has had an impressive list of adventures. Many are true but others are nothing more than urban legends.

Real or not, Balotelli is never far from controversy.

His coach at Inter was a man used to controversy himself. Jose Mourinho clashed regularly with his young player, a meeting of two gigantic egos. Neither made much of a secret about their feelings for each other.

It peaked when Balotelli appeared on a television show wearing an AC Milan shirt, Inter's most fierce rival. They shirt had Balotelli's name and number on the back.

"The guy has incredible qualities, but sometimes does not know how to use his brain," Mourinho said.

But he knows how to use his feet and body. The physical part of him has fully matured.

What hasn't is his ability to control himself and think before he does something. The hope for Italy is that he eventually learns how to become the consummate professional.

Until then, his teams will have to be satisfied by his enormous talent even if they have to walk on eggshells waiting for the child to become a man.


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