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Black History Month: Why always me?

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Mario Balotelli is a dynamic and complicated talent, and one of the most misunderstood in history.

SOCCER - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Manchester City Photo by Sam Bagnall/AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

When you hear the phrase, “Why Always Me?”, there’s only one person that comes to mind: Mario Balotelli. A dynamic talent, his sentiments were routinely misunderstood and it has clouded people’s thoughts of him throughout his career. However, there’s no mistaking that Balotelli has been a talent the likes of which this world really hasn’t seen in quite a long time.

He was born Mario Barwuah in Sicily to immigrants from Ghana. When he was three, his parents placed him in foster care due to their inability to pay for his health care. The family that took him in was the Balotelli family, a Jewish family from Brescia, Italy. Mario eventually adopted Balotelli as his surname once his foster family decided to permanently foster him and has gone by that throughout his life to honor the family that took him in.

His professional career started at Lumezzane in 2006 at the age of 15, and it didn’t take long before he got a trial with Barcelona. While it was unsuccessful, he earned looks from major with just 2 appearances for Lumezzane. In 2007, he signed with Inter Milan in 2007 and then-head coach Roberto Mancini. He quickly made a name for himself in his first friendly, scoring 2 goals in a 5-2 victory over Sheffield FC. He made his Serie A debut shortly after that match, and he eventually became a steady part of the lineup for the Nerazzurri. In 2008, he became the youngest Inter player (18 years, 85 days) to score in Champions League.

Balotelli also has taken more than his fair share of racial abuse from Italian fans. The first instance was in April 2009, when he scored Inter’s only goal in a match against Juventus, which led to Juve’s fans taunting him with racist remarks throughout the match.

Under head coach José Mourinho, Balotelli had several disciplinary issues, particularly surrounding his perceived lack of effort during training and matches. It’s an issue that has followed him throughout his career. Because of this stigma, the racial abuse continued in his home country. He eventually had a falling out with Mourinho and Inter fans after several poor performances and his reactions to jeers from fans. He didn’t win the favor of his teammates either, with many of them not backing up his reaction to racial abuse or criticism over his performances.

Despite all these clouds of doubt surrounding him, he eventually moved onto Manchester City, reuniting with Roberto Mancini. He quickly made a name for himself, being named the 2010 Golden Boy Award at the age of 20. Despite still having disciplinary issues, he scored big goals for the club. In October 2011, scoring a goal against Manchester United, he lifted up his jersey to reveal a shirt that said “Why always me?” on it, referring to all the negative attention he received for his antics on and off the field.

SOCCER - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Manchester City Photo by Sam Bagnall/AMA/Corbis via Getty Images

He was a part of easily the most incredible moment in the history of the Premier League when he provided the assist on Sergio Agüero’s goal on the final matchday of the 2011-2012 season that gave Manchester City its first top flight title since 1968, snatching the title from rivals Manchester United in the process.

Despite being a part of that incredible moment, Balotelli was always the subject of antics that drew the anger of his teammates, coaches, fans, and the media. In 2013, he moved to AC Milan, with Mancini considering it a necessary change of scenery. He came out the blocks quickly, scoring 2 goals in his debut and scored 4 goals in his first 3 matches. In all, he had 12 goals in 13 appearances that season for Milan, despite once again being subjected to racist taunts along the way.

He moved to Liverpool, where he had a disastrous season in 2014, and eventually returned on loan to Milan. Battling injuries and inconsistency, he only scored 1 goal in his return to the San Siro. He returned to Liverpool, but was quickly out of favor with Jürgen Klopp, who had just taken over at the club. He has since had stints at Nice, Marseille, Brescia, and Monza.

Mario Balotelli drew the interest of Italy’s youth national teams early on, but because he was still a Ghanaian immigrant, he wasn’t eligible to represent Italy. He turned down call-ups from Ghana, expressing his desire to play for Italy when he became eligible. Because his foster family did not adopt him, he could not obtain Italian citizenship until he turned 18.

Once he obtained citizenship, he joined Italy’s U-21s and quickly moved up to the U-23s, playing and scoring for Italy in the 2009 UEFA U-21 Euros. He made his debut with the senior national team in August 2010 in a friendly match against the Ivory Coast. He scored his first goal in November 2011 against Poland. He was selected to Italy’s roster for Euro 2012, becoming the first Black player to represent the Azzurri in a major international competition. Balotelli scored quite a few goals for Italy, but none more memorable than his brace against Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinals. On the second goal, a missile from the edge of the box, he simply ripped his shirt off and stood motionless, flexing every muscle in his body for the world to see as he was mobbed by his teammates.

While Italy would go on to lose to Spain in the final, Balotelli was named to the Team of the Tournament. He tied with 5 other players for the most goals in the tournament, losing the Golden Boot to Fernando Torres due to a Torres assist in the final. Balotelli would feature heavily on the Azzurri during 2014 World Cup qualifying, the 2013 Confederations Cup, and the 2014 World Cup. When they crashed out of the World Cup in the first round, Antonio Conte took over as coach and Balotelli fell off the national team radar.

Balotelli’s game is a unique combination of agility, creativity, and brute power and strength. He has a keen ability to score with power from anywhere on the field with either foot or his head, and his build allows him to outmuscle anyone on the field for the ball and position. Still, his behavior on and off the field was unmanageable for many coaches, and that reputation has followed him his entire career. Still, he was a part of 3 Serie A winning teams, won the Coppa Italia, and won the Champions League with Inter Milan in 2010. He also won the Premier League title and FA Cup with Manchester City.

Some of his reputation was deserved, but many feel that the Italian striker they call Super Mario, now 30, was just misunderstood and that the racial abuse that he’s had to endure throughout his career has shaped his personality. People react to racial abuse in different ways. Balotelli chose to act demonstratively and let you know that he was on the field and looking to ruin your day. He would score with flair and celebrate in kind. Some may look back on his career when it’s all over and consider him a generational talent wasted. But to many others, his talent was unmatched and Italy—and the rest of the world—wasn’t ready to handle it.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.