Mario Balotelli: What happened to 'the most interesting man in the world'?

Mario Balotelli HIC 16:9
A decade ago the Italian appeared destined to become a footballing superstar, but he is now struggling in Switzerland after one misstep after another

It remains one of the most iconic images in sporting history. Mario Balotelli, stone-faced, shirt off, fists clenched, muscles bulging - a picture of defiance. Balotelli himself even commissioned an artist to immortalise the moment with a life-sized statue.

In fairness, he wasn't the only one enamoured with the iconic pose. FIFA added the forward's 'flex' at Euro 2012 to the very next edition of its video game series, while Subbuteo rolled out a special-edition figurine.

At the time, everyone was enthralled by 'Super Mario'. He was featured on the front page of Time magazine, joining an exclusive club of Italian idols that included Luciano Pavarotti, Silvio Berlusconi, Sophia Loren and Giorgio Armani.

Sports Illustrated labelled him 'The Most Interesting Man in the World' and, to be fair, he wasn't far off.

  1. 'I will forever play with the Italian national team'

    'I will forever play with the Italian national team'

    Balotelli was young, black, talented and utterly unafraid to speak his mind.

    His emergence at the European Championship felt like a seminal moment in Italy's struggle with racial integration. As the son of Ghanaian immigrants raised by a couple from Brescia, he didn't just have the potential to become a footballing superstar, he also had it in him to become one of the most influential sportsmen of his generation.

    Kids of every colour wanted to be like Balotelli. His distinctive mohawk was the most requested haircut in Italy in 2012, while his mere presence in the national team provoked a long overdue debate on national identity.

    "I am Italian," Balotelli famously declared after being belatedly granted citizenship after turning 18. "I feel Italian. And I will forever play with the Italian national team."

    And yet, a decade on, Balotelli is viewed as an embarrassment because of his 'bad' behaviour, a sad symbol of the pitfalls of fame.

  2. 'I think that chapter is closed'

    'I think that chapter is closed'

    He's still only 32 and yet he hasn't played for his country since 2018 - which is staggering for two reasons. Firstly, Italy is suffering from a shocking shortage of strikers. Secondly, the current coach is one of the few men in football to have ever gotten the best out of Balotelli.

    But when Roberto Mancini was recently asked about bringing Italy's prodigal son back into the fold, he replied: "I think that chapter is closed."

    And one can see why the Azzurri boss no longer wants anything to do with Balotelli. He's been given more than enough chances to prove his worth over the past decade, and time and time again, he's disappointed.

    He's had eight clubs in the past nine years, and only at Nice, during two seasons under Lucien Favre between 2016 and 2018, did he really look like getting his career back on track.

  3. 'We expected more from Mario'

    What's infuriating, though, is that the talent is still there.

    Just last year, during his time with Super Lig side Adana Dermirspor, a video went viral of him scoring the most audacious rabona after several stepovers.

    It was one of five goals scored by Balotelli in the same game. And yet his time in Turkey ended prematurely and in predictable fashion, with Balotelli offloaded at the start of the current campaign after a touchline bust-up with coach Vincenzo Montella, who had to be restrained from confronting his compatriot.

    "I can only say that we expected more from Mario," Montella said, echoing sentiments expressed by countless coaches during Balotelli's career.

    "There are things that can happen at the end of a game. Maybe the adrenaline makes you say certain things. But, for me, he's finished here."

  4. A 'lifestyle choice' turns sour

    A 'lifestyle choice' turns sour

    He could soon be finished at Sion too. It certainly doesn't bode well for the future when your own club's fans are burning your jersey in the stands for a perceived lack of effort...

    Balotelli only moved to Switzerland in August, just after his very public row with Montella, but 18 appearances have yielded just six goals, and done nothing to challenge the widely held view that Balotelli's heart is no longer in it.

    Even when he first arrived, the attacker said that joining Sion was a "lifestyle choice" - so the sight of him being helped out of a nightclub in Lausanne shortly after signing didn't really soothe fears that he was more interested in enjoying himself off the field than on it.

    Balotelli is no fool, though. He is acutely aware that he's "not an easy guy to deal with". He knows that he's made a lot of mistakes. He still bitterly regrets throwing his shirt to the ground in front of Inter fans at San Siro all the back in 2010.

    “I admit it ruined everything and I was wrong," he recently told the podcast Muschio Selvaggio. "But I was 19 years old. I couldn't understand why the stadium was jeering me for losing the ball a couple of times and I returned home in tears that night."

  5. 'The spotlight was always on me'

    'The spotlight was always on me'

    His critics can quite correctly counter, but why always him? Why has Balotelli always found himself at the centre of controversy. The man himself would argue that it's partly due to the colour of his skin.

    "The spotlight was always on me," he pointed out. "Aside from my own character and the label of being a prodigy as a teenager, I think the status of being the first black player in the Italy squad also contributed to people always talking about what I did off the field. I saw colleagues do some things, if it had been me..."

    There's no denying that Balotelli has been treated differently throughout his career, and the devastating effect of the incessant racism he has endured is still regularly overlooked.

    As he one once wrote on Instagram: "I am not a robot, nor an epidemic or even an idiot. Many times I don’t reply, to avoid problems and unnecessary tension, but I hear and see it all and it accumulates and I get fed up too."

  6. 'Happy with the path I've taken'

    'Happy with the path I've taken'

    However, Balotelli has also admitted that too often during his career he played at "20 percent of my capabilities".

    His former agent Mino Raiola repeatedly told him that his laziness and lack of discipline was the reason why "Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have so many Ballon d'Or trophies."

    The late Raiola was obviously renowned for his hyperbole but back in 2012, Balotelli really did look like he could become one of the best players in the world. He was that good, which only makes his subsequent struggles even tougher to take.

    He insists that when he retires, he'll be "happy with the path I have taken", and is adamant that he can still play for "another four years at a good level" - but any hope of him belatedly realising his potential has long since faded.

    He remains a fascinating figure, of course, he's undeniably lived a life less ordinary. But the most interesting man in the world? Not really anymore. Maybe just the most frustrating case of unfulfilled talent the game has ever seen.