We meet Mario Balotelli at a studio on the outskirts of Milan city centre. He is there to take part in a shoot for his sponsors, Puma, but it is a quiet morning and the usual chaos surrounding a high-profile footballer is strangely absent.
The place is hardly empty – agent, brand representative, stylist, make-up artist, videographer, photographer and various assistants – but the radio is on, the mood is relaxed and the man himself is an exemplar of calm.
The youngest member of the crew is a boy of seven or eight: the son of one of the ensemble described above. He has already requested (and been granted) a selfie of himself with one of his footballing heroes and a signed shirt, when his father sends him Balotelli’s way with one more item to be marked. “Ca fait trop!” protests the child, in French. Too much!
He need not have worried. The Liverpool and Italy forward, fresh from being dropped by both club and country, is more than happy to oblige.
“Every morning, when I wake up, I think that maybe yesterday people are speaking bad things about me,” says Balotelli in an exclusive interview with Sport. “But then I see kids coming up to me, like today, and I think I’m not doing that bad. I could do better – of course, I could do way better – but kids are natural, they are honest. If they look at you and don’t like you, they don’t come up to you.
“So if I see them always coming up to me, then it means I can’t be that bad, either as a footballer or a person. When kids stop asking for my autograph or a picture or whatever, then maybe I will start to think that I need to change something about myself. This is why I love kids. And dogs.”
“If I say kiss, then she kisses me,” says Balotelli of Lucky, the labrador-pitbull cross that brings a smile to his face before he even mentions her. Lucky lives in Italy with Balotelli’s foster parents – who first took him in at the age of three – and another dog, Tyson the rottweiler. Thoughts of home, and those who reside there, inspire an air of contentment in a character not traditionally associated with it.
“Of course I miss my family and friends in Italy,” he says. “But when I go back, I spend hours talking with my parents. Then I visit my friends and we do normal stuff – you know, playing PlayStation and ping pong. Then I pick up my dogs and we go for a walk.
“They are really clever, my dogs. Lucky is unbelievable – when you look into her face, it is like you are with a real person. When I speak, she listens. I only have to say things one time. If I ask her for her paw, she gives it to me. I ask her to sit, she sits; I say she can run, she runs. Everything I ask her to do, she does.”
The unequivocal obedience of his dogs, the unwavering devotion of his parents, the straightforward honesty of the kids who adore him – these are the characteristics that put Balotelli most at ease. Life was never going to be a walk in the park for a son of Ghanaian immigrants growing up in a country less than renowned for its tolerance of outsiders. It is no surprise that he cherishes simplicity – and, before the fame, the riches and the controversies, this is exactly what football offered him.
“Football has always meant freedom,” he says, without pause, when asked for his earliest memories of playing football. “I go on the pitch and I get to do whatever I want. I remember when I was really young, when I used to go and play in the park with my friends. I always used to come at the last minute, and then whichever team I was going on was always winning. The other team never wanted me to play.”
He smiles at the recollection, and continues: “But I always felt free, and that’s still the same now as it was then. On the pitch, you think only of what is on the pitch. You have to try whatever you can to be the best. If it works, it works. Sometimes, like now, in this period, it doesn’t work so well. But you keep trying, and then it comes. It’s not difficult, psychologically.”
Not everything Balotelli has done in football seems to have been carried out with such obvious lucidity, but his off-field antics have perhaps raised even more eyebrows. It is now almost four years since his 20-year-old self mindlessly threw a dart in the direction of a youth team player at Manchester City. Not long after that, he returned from a shopping trip to buy an ironing board for his mother with a quad bike, a Scalextric set and a trampoline. Most infamous of his capers, however, remains the letting-off of a firework in his bathroom in October 2012. No one was injured, but the press understandably still went to town.
“I have done mistakes in the past, like everybody did when they were young,” he says. “And the firework thing did happen, but it wasn’t me who let it off. I know England is like this, though, so it’s okay. It’s a shame, sure, but I get used to it – the newspapers are always trying to give an image of Mario that is bad, printing things that aren’t true.
“Off the pitch, really I don’t have any problems because I am always home. When people speak bad about me, it’s only because they listen to the media and read what the newspapers say. They maybe lose a little bit of focus on my football, so everybody thinks I am famous for what happens outside the pitch.
“Someone told me recently that I had apparently said that if I have sex three or four hours before a game, it is working for me on the pitch. Trust me, if I am having sex four hours before a game I am not able to play. I don’t think anyone could. It makes me laugh, but this is not me.
“I am only focused on football. I live out in the countryside, I am relaxed and I just hope the time that I’m going to score is coming soon. Then maybe they will concentrate more on football and not all the other bullshit.”
“I am a face-to-face person.” Balotelli is speaking to us the day after new coach Antonio Conte named his Italy squad for the most recent round of Euro 2016 fixtures. His name was missing.
“I understand why I am not in the squad,” he says. “I haven’t been scoring, but other players like [Graziano] Pelle and the other strikers have been. So they deserve to be there, but I love Italy and nobody can ever say anything about my national team. I will always love it, but I have to be honest and say I was disappointed at what people were saying and how they were blaming me after the World Cup.
“I think I had two, maybe three chances in all the tournament. Everyone knows I scored against England [pictured, below], but I couldn’t do much else. Even Cesare Prandelli [Italy’s coach in Brazil] has said bad stuff about me. Should he be going and talking to the newspapers about me straight after a game? I did not expect that and I did not reply, because there is no point. I think real men, if they have something to say, then they come to you and say it to your face. I am a face-to-face person, a straight person.”
So, says the 24-year-old, is his new manager at club level. “He is very good, a strong character,” says Balotelli of Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers. “And I think that comes out in the way the team plays. I think he can help me improve as a player. He is very open, everybody can talk to him – but first he looks at the person, and second he looks at the footballer. With Brendan, you need to be a good person – you don’t have to be, how do you say it, a dickhead.”
Anyone who has seen Balotelli attempt to put on a training bib will know that attention span isn’t his strongest virtue, but Rodgers isn’t the only facet of Liverpool that has piqued the new boy’s interest since arriving in the summer.
“I didn’t really know much about the club before coming here, but I’ve been really surprised,” he admits. “I knew they were a very good team, but I didn’t know they were as good as they are. Of course we need to improve many things because we have started off not very good, but I think the players here are amazing. It’s good to see young English players here too: Sterling, Henderson, Lallana. I think the more players you have like this, the better. Maybe over time you have got used to not seeing so many good young English players like that, but now we are seeing some – it’s good that they are in my team.”
“I need to get in the box more,” says Balotelli when we ask him about his own game. “All the rumours I hear about that – these ones are true. I don’t do it enough, but it is something I am working to try to do more. I have never been a real, out-and-out striker – I have always been someone who goes around the pitch, you know?
“If it was my choice, I would always go with two strikers. It’s the way I like to play, but Brendan asked me to play as the first striker. I understand that when the ball comes from wide on the left or right, I need to be in the box otherwise there might be no one there at all.”
Beyond an ambition to get in the box more, Balotelli has an eye on only one target: netting his first Premier League goal for a club whose fans have already made him feel at home.
“I can see already that the Liverpool fans really like me, although I know that maybe they are a little upset because I don’t score,” he says. “I see they appreciate that I am working hard, though, which is nice for me. I know I have one goal in the Champions League, but in the Premier League I have to start with one. After that, I might set myself a target, but I swear – right now my first league goal is my first and only objective.
“And the team? You ask me if I think we can finish in the top four – I hope so. But I am focused and I want to work on us winning the league, not coming in the first four places. No one is in this competition to try and lose it, everybody plays to win, and I think Chelsea and Man City are the teams we need to aim for. We have to give our best, and whatever happens will happen, but I hope we can come very close to the Premier League title.”
“Ibrahimovic, Figo, Pirlo.” The three best players that Mario Balotelli has ever counted as teammates, according to Mario Balotelli. Interesting, we suggest, that he has picked three of the most technically gifted footballers of their generation. “For sure,” he agrees. “I was 17 or 18 when I played with Figo at Inter, but he was still brilliant. And Pirlo is amazing – the incredible thing is that he is still getting better now. It’s an easy thing to say that we just want to keep improving as footballers, but it is not an easy thing to do.
“Gerrard too, he is an amazing player. I had really not seen much of him before this season, apart from for England, but wow. I think of him as being at the same level as Pirlo. Vision, technique, but he is powerful as well. Stevie can do anything. It’s going to be very difficult for the team to find another player like him in the future.”
And with that, Balotelli polishes off the last few grapes of a bowl he has demolished since beginning our interview, and rises to leave. But before he goes, one final question, an old Sport favourite: if you were allowed to watch only three sports for the rest of your life, Mario, what would they be?
“Football, UFC and athletics,” he says, pausing for some time between numbers two and three on that list. But the first of his choices was leaving his lips before the question was even finished. His journey in football has already been a long and eventful one, but Balotelli is still in love with the sport that has always made him feel free. And, at least for now, football is still in love with him.
Mario Balotelli wears PUMA evoPOWER football boots #ForeverFaster