Balotelli can give rise to Inter's 'Obama moment'
Inter Milan may not just be losing the best coach in the world after today's Champions League final; they could also be bidding farewell to perhaps the most important footballer in Europe, the kid who has divided the sport in Italy at the same time as looking eminently capable of changing the face of the game there.
Even Jose Mourinho, who has never quite yet been able to answer, 'how do you solve a problem like Mario?' would not put it past Mario Balotelli writing an outlandish denouement to his fantastically turbulent and dramatic season.
What a story, what a cause for celebration in the new, more ethnically diverse Italy if the 19-year-old striker, the nation's first born-and-bred black footballing superstar, could deliver the perfect final riposte to the racists who have routinely assailed him from the stands in a country still struggling to come to grips with multiculturalism.
Then, runs the speculation, he could jet off to one of those English giants who've been sniffing around -- like Arsenal and Manchester City -- where his brilliance could be appreciated in a poison-free atmosphere, where he would not have to hear fans chant, "If you jump up and down, Balotelli will die!"
Only with Balotelli, it's not that black and white. How much, many ask, is he the victim of racism and how much the victim of his own volatile, petulant, provocative personality? Which then begs the question: how much has that feisty persona been shaped by having to endure the sort of dog's abuse no one should have to take?
Balotelli was never designed to suffer the bigots in silence. So when Juventus fans kept chanting, "A negro can't be Italian", this Palermo-born son of Ghanaian immigrants, who was adopted as a two-year-old by a white family in Brescia, just retorted that he was more Italian than any of them.
And when Chievo fans rained down abuse during a game, Balotelli offered them a sarcastic round of applause (for which, scandalously, he got fined) before going on television to pronounce: "Every time I come to Verona I realise the supporters disgust me more and more."
Then there was this month's Francesco Totti drama. Balotelli spent the whole Coppa Italia final winding up the grandee of the Italian game. "He even said, 'Yo, grandad! You're finished!'," complained an outraged Totti, who got so exasperated that he ended up getting sent off for chasing his young tormentor and booting his ankle wildly from behind. Afterwards, Balotelli insisted Totti had called him "nigger", a claim the Roma captain vehemently denies. Yet the mad episode encapsulates the maelstrom in which the teenager seems constantly to swirl.
The rows with Mourinho over his supposed laziness and indiscipline; the sin of wearing an AC Milan shirt on a TV show; the desecration of Inter's San Siro masterpiece after the victory over Barcelona when, in disgust at his own supporters' derision, he hurled his shirt to the ground; and the subsequent hurled punch team-mate Marco Materazzi felt he deserved. Life is never dull with 'Super Mario' around.
He exasperates, infuriates and delights. My assumption that Inter fans could not forgive him for his shirt-defiling was misplaced; seeing him at his hotel window in Siena last Sunday, the throng of tifosi below hailed him with no little affection. He may be a mad, bad boy, but he was their mad, bad boy.
And he is just a boy, remember. As Leonardo, the recently deposed Milan coach, said: "I don't see a villain but a lad who's made it in complicated circumstances. Italy isn't ready for diversity yet; it's not easy for Balotelli to grow up in a society like this. I admire him very much."
Lilian Thuram, France's great former Juve defender and now the most eloquent voice in eradicating racism from football, was not alone in being disappointed that coach Marcello Lippi did not elevate the U-21 international into becoming Italy's first black World Cup player.
"Those who deny the existence of racism leave Balotelli to fight it on his own," Thuram told 'La Gazzetta dello Sport'. "Where does it say that Italians can't be black?"
Selecting him would have been "a strong signal, like Obama's election as US President". Balotelli and Obama in the same breath? It cannot be easy for a lad who finds himself expected to be everything from pioneering statesman to multicultural icon when he just wants to be a footballer.
And what a footballer. Such pace, skill and explosiveness. It may yet prove Mourinho's last man-management triumph in Milan to have pardoned Balotelli and squeezed the best from him since his Barcelona tantrum. Last week, he started him in the league decider in Siena and he was brilliant; tonight, he may revert to his more familiar role of being launched like a rocket from the bench.
His last Italian stand? That would be a crying shame for those who want to watch a grown-up Balotelli persevere and win his revolution from within Serie A. But enough may be enough for him; the other week, he discovered the bolts on one of his car wheels had been mysteriously loosened.
Yet there is still time. In the Bernabeu, a stadium itself stained by racism, imagine if one of Italy's great clubs ends up saluting a home-grown black Italian champion for linking its distinguished past to an exciting future. Wouldn't that be Thuram's Obama moment? (© Daily Telegraph, London)