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Will Mario Balotelli gamble work for Manchester City?

Mario Balotelli lining up for Italy's national under-21 team
Balotelli is a proud Italian and determined to represent the country of his birth

By Chris Whyatt

His teenage years just days behind him, Manchester City are gambling that Mario Balotelli can now also say arrivederci to controversy and become one of the world's best footballers.

"Unquestionable talent; highly-questionable temperament" is the populist view from Milan and beyond.

But is that fair on someone who has played under the crushing pressure of racism while still, as he admits, not yet a grown man?

Balotelli celebrated his 20th birthday on Thursday, two days after making his debut for Italy in a 1-0 defeat by Ivory Coast at Upton Park, and the 6ft 3in youngster has already made waves by admitting he would have preferred to continue his club career in Italy.

Yet delve into the intriguing story of 'Super Mario', as he is dubbed, and you grasp a greater understanding of why City's Middle Eastern owners put up a reported £24m to take a spin on a risky investment.

Firstly, the base ingredients: lightning-quick, strong as an ox, good with both feet, impeccable technique, Balotelli - who, but for citizenship issues, may have been snapped up by Barcelona when he was younger - possesses rare if raw gifts.

"Mario is a crazy talent," says Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti. "With him Manchester City will challenge for the title, not just fourth."

"The guy has incredible qualities," admits Jose Mourinho, his last manager at Inter Milan with whom Balotelli endured a fractious relationship, "but sometimes does not know how to use his brain."

Jan 2009 Mourinho criticism: "He must change his attitude."
Apr 2009 Racially abused by Juventus fans in Italy Under-21s
Jan 2010 Fined for reaction to Chievo fans' racial abuse
Feb 2010 Left out of Inter squad, criticised by own agent
Mar 2010 Wears AC Milan shirt on an Italian TV show
Apr 2010 Throws Inter shirt to ground during win over Barcelona

And here is the rub. Mourinho is known as a manager for trying to foster particularly close relationships with his key players, yet even he was left banging his head against a wall.

"His effort in training is 25%," added Mourinho, now Real Madrid boss. "If it was at 50% he would be one of the best players in the world. I don't like the atmosphere he is bringing to the team. He lacks concentration and motivation. He must change."

What, then, makes Manchester City think he can evolve, particularly when the club is desperate to trade its reputation for instability for the continuity and calm that may bring a first trophy in 34 years?

"England is the perfect place for him to flower if he understands - I want to be the best player of my generation and not a rock star," says Beppe Severgnini, a leading Italian journalist who writes about Inter and has spent time with Balotelli recently.

"You can be a Gascoigne or a Rooney, that's what I told him. It's up to you."

The reasons for Manchester being the perfect destination at this point in his career are many, according to those who know him.

Sicily-born Balotelli - who is loyal to his beloved adoptive family from Brescia who raised him and shuns the Ghanaian parents who abandoned him at an early age - appears keen to escape the racist abuse he has endured as a symbol of multi-ethnic identity in Italy.

Juventus supporters hung banners in their stadium last year which read: "A negro cannot be Italian."

But Balotelli's older sister Cristina - who admits her adopted brother is a "bit of a rebel" but insists he is "sensitive, with very good values" - is quick to correct them.

"Mario is very proud to be black and Italian," she tells BBC Sport. "He wants to represent Italy. He was born in Italy. He's never been to Africa, not yet. His country is Italy.

"It will be easier [in England]. In your football stadiums, you don't have these kinds of episodes. Mario is always painted as a bad boy - but there is a background of racism in Italian society. He wasn't forgiven for things that you would forgive other people for.

BlueMoon - CTID

"It was tough for him. Any bad reactions he had were just a consequence of that."

Friendly with many high-profile Italians who have moved to England, Severgnini thinks Manchester will be less of a cauldron than Milan and that Balotelli - who started out at Serie C side Lumezzane before joining Inter - can live his life with less hassle.

"Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola, Fabio Capello - they've told me it's great because it's more relaxed and there's less tension," he states. "Tension is not good for a 19-year-old kid.

"Also, there is no Champions League at City so there is less spotlight - this means it should be a better environment. Manchester compared to Milan is a smaller, and maybe a simpler, city."

But the crucial element, which the success of his move to City revolves around, is his relationship with City manager Roberto Mancini, who had enough faith to give him Balotelli his Inter Milan debut at 17.

"Mario had a very good relationship with Mancini during his time at Inter," says sister Cristina.

Severgnini picks up the theme: "I'm convinced Mancini is a good person to explain this to him: a rock star is alone on stage, but he is part of a team.

"When he was 20, Mancini was a bit like Balotelli. He was a good player but he could have done much more, for club and country. Because of that too, he knows how to deal with him."

As Mancini declared before clinching his signature: "I was the first to believe in him and I'm convinced about what he can give."

That is music to Balotelli's ears, according to his sister. "If he finds a good environment and the people support him and understand him, with a coach that does believes in him, does understand him, does make him feel important for the team - it will be easier for him.

Mario Balotelli lining up for Italy's national under-21 team
He is perfect for the English game. He reminds me of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, these type of guys

Kolo Toure

"But he's very young, he can be very fragile. It's a question mark. But he has the personality to make this a success."

Perhaps she can be comforted by the words of the man who lifted the Premier League trophy in his first season after moving from Italy.

Ancelotti believes the Premier League is "the ideal place for Balotelli" because: "There is too much pressure on young players in Italy, and there is almost no racism to contend with in England."

After 60 minutes spent trying to shackle Balotelli on his international debut, Kolo Toure also came to the conclusion that his new club team-mate is suited to blood-and-thunder Premier League football.

"He is perfect for the English game," he said. "He reminds me of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, these type of guys.

"They have a really strong mentality and, in the Premier League, we like those kind of players."

And what about shining on the biggest stage, say, a Manchester derby for a place in the Champions League come the end of the season?

Severgnini insists that big matches - without abuse being hurled at him from the stands - are bread and butter for Balotelli: "He ignores tension and pressure on the pitch. It is unbelievable."

City's long-suffering fans might just have rare cause for believing.

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see also
Man City complete Balotelli deal
13 Aug 10 |  Man City
Balotelli wanted to stay in Italy
13 Aug 10 |  Man City
Man City eye Donovan & Balotelli
21 Jul 10 |  Man City
Man City complete Kolarov signing
24 Jul 10 |  Man City
Man City complete 24m Silva deal
14 Jul 10 |  Man City
Man City secure Boateng signing
05 Jun 10 |  Man City
Balotelli & Maicon 'not for sale'
15 Jul 10 |  Europe
Inter Milan 3-1 Barcelona
20 Apr 10 |  Europe
Ghana coach targets Balotelli
02 Dec 09 |  African

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