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Balotelli's eternal return to the Azzurri

How over the years he has become both a symbol of wasted talent and the last resort of the Azzurri national team

Balotelli's eternal return to the Azzurri How over the years he has become both a symbol of wasted talent and the last resort of the Azzurri national team

I thought it would be impossible to find a copy of Time with Balotelli on the cover, but no. On ebay there is an auction starting at 60 euros for a copy on which the year of publication is still clearly visible at the top right. 2012. One wonders then why in 2012 the Italian striker, now called up for a three-day internship by Mancini in the national team 1332 days after the last time, was on the cover of one of the world's most important magazines and has now become a survey on gossip and football sites?

Balotelli stopped being a footballer moving to Brescia, after playing three years in France, from 2016 to 2019 and before ending up at Monza for six months and, since September, in Turkey at Adana Demirspor, where he has so far scored seven goals in 18 games. But with more technical judgement, it can be said that on the pitch his last peak came in 2017 at Nice. Then too many sporting rejections - all justified - and a pernicious attitude off the field. In the meantime relentless time has passed, and with it fashions and infatuations.

Balotelli was a style icon, the second most stylish man according to GQ UK in 2012. He was the one who ended up on the covers of Sports Illustrated, L'Uomo Vogue, GQ Italia, Vanity Fair and, of course, Time, who in 2012 also included him in the 100 most influential people in the world. Even Spike Lee once said he would like to meet him. The period from 2009 to 2015, the period of Why always me, the top scorer at Euro 2012, the tense muscles and wearing the Milan shirt was for Balotelli the peak of his career, moreover in conjunction with some titles won, such as those in England with City

He used to show up in Milan's Via Montenapoleone and Corso Buenos Aires in his Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, or his Maserati Gran Turismo, or a camo Bentley Continental, or the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta (costing 320,000 euros), all of which came out of his garage, to which Toptenfamous dedicated a Youtube video. Then he strolled around the shops, perhaps with Mino Raiola or Raffaella Fico. Trainers by PUMA - of which he was testimonial after his very first beginnings in Nike -, Dsquared2 trousers with a view of Armani pants, furs, unbuttoned shirts, Gucci sunglasses, New Era caps, oversized sweatshirts and every kind of tamaronic shorts that could exist. He was actually very rebel in his outfits, sticking to a bad boy aesthetic, which was all very well for the times. Called upon to walk the runway at Runway fashion for relief in Cannes in 2012, Balotelli was often on the front rows of Versace, White and Brian Atwood shows at various Milan fashion weeks. To GQ UK he once replied: "The best dressed teammate? Me. On the other hand, for many of gen Z Balotelli was a role model. The boys would say, 'I'm wearing a low crotch,' like Balo. "I got sent off after a goal", like Balo.

But above all, he was a reference for the Italian black community. When he took off his shirt after the goal against Germany - at the time the League had 32% popularity and the rhetoric on immigration was constantly rising - Balotelli showed his muscles and for a moment his look revealed an awareness of what he really was, forgetting about cars, looks, luxury. He was not a twenty year old with a ball, but the twenty year old with the ball who can be a game changer, a reference for many second generation Italians like him. In fact, he knew racism well: people in the stadiums used it against him because they simply couldn't stand that someone like Balotelli, as well as being strong, was also an asshole. And black. And Italian. 

A guy like him in Italy and Europe was necessarily the man of the moment, and the readings that the various Times and GQ gave him were along these lines: the cultural and sporting responsibility of the moment for Balotelli. Having been one of the first second-generation Italians to achieve fame, the real one, he was loaded with the expectations that apply only to those who must be an example at all costs, becoming a symbol of something that even he did not know. Let's think like on incomparable talents, such as Moise Kean, on whom, not surprisingly, was immediately stuck the label of the new Balotelli.

But in the shameful sufficiency of the comparison an unavoidable fact is evident. Balotelli's character could not withstand the weight of the role the world was sewing on him, and he was overwhelmed by an inner self that was too mythomaniacal and nihilistic. Club nights, controversy, gossip and media whirlwinds are experiences that have affected Beckham and other celebrities, they are part of every successful footballer's career. But he was too repetitive, each time a slip for a photo in Gente or the Wednesday morning article about yet another speeding ticket. Then the relationships and the hot-bloodedness of certain attitudes on the field - quarrels with coaches and teammates, fights, expulsions - have eaten away at his image to the point of making him lose credibility and esteem. 

Above all, they have soured his relationship with Roberto Mancini, now coach of the national team and sporting father of the player. The careers of the two have been inextricably intertwined since Mancini made his debut at just 17 years of age with Inter, took him to the Premier League to Manchester City and twice returned him to the national team. Once in 2018, immediately after Conte left, and now with this internship: definitely his fetish player to rely on in the darkest moments of the Azzurri national team. But the management of the bond with Mancini is also a thermometer of Balotelli's character unsustainability. Senseless reactions and quarrels that with another coach would have cost him an expulsion from the team, while Mancini has always guaranteed him a second chance. The kind of attitudes he has held with the Italy coach - brawling in training, red after a few minutes, senseless heel strikes - are those with which Balotelli has depotentiated his career but thanks to his mentor he is getting closer to the Azzurri again.

Now that Mancini has called him up, specifying in a press conference that 'Italy is not in despair', we have to wonder if we really need Balotelli. Paolo Di Canio on Sky Calcio Club said exactly the opposite ("If we call up Balotelli we're at the end of our rope") and after a stint in Serie B and a decent performance in Turkey, calling Balotelli an asset to the national team might be outrageous. In 2018 he was back in the Azzurri with goals, but it was during a 20+ goal season with Nice. In short, he was still a competitive Balotelli. This call-up, on the other hand, seems more like a courtesy, a gesture of affection from Mancini given that it is only an internship and is unlikely to result in a future call-up. But in the event, it would mean choosing a 31-year-old striker from Dana Demirspor and if Mancini really does get to use Balotelli for the World Cup qualifiers, Italy will once again be living its love-hate relationship with one of its most controversial sons.