Thursday 23 January 2020

Tommy Conlon: Some are born cursed and blessed at the same time

Tommy Conlon

The person born with that special gift for a sport which can lucratively reward him has caught one of life's luckiest breaks.

There are parents everywhere who like to dream that the infant sleeping peacefully in his crib might one day become a star of those mass-market ball games where the cash comes down in waterfalls.

They are hoping that the kid's numbers have come up trumps in the great genetic lottery. And that by the age of five he'll be firing golf balls or shooting hoops or juggling footballs like a sporting Mozart.

But the chances of producing one of these chosen few is as improbable statistically as a multi-million win in the weekly numbers lottery. It could be you -- but almost certainly it won't. Then again, it has to be someone, and the chosen ones in sport seem to be as randomly selected as the winner of a Lotto fortune. The superstar footballer or NBA titan can seemingly come from anywhere, with no apparent genetic predisposition in the parents that conceived this exceptional tissue of talent.

Unfortunately, this roll of the dice which produces a complete sporting specimen can often produce in the same package a very incomplete human being. The distribution of character traits is also random, arbitrary and uneven. A young man endowed with outstanding physical co-ordination and extravagant ball skills can also be completely un-endowed with basic intelligence. Clever on the field, thick as two short planks off it. Or he can be reasonably intelligent but lack any capacity for consistent graft and dedication. In which case, the talent that a million other boys would die for is eventually wasted.

When Mario Barwuah was born on August 12, 1990, he came into the world fully coded for sporting brilliance, in his case as a professional footballer. He was a prodigy; he made his debut for Inter Milan at the age of 17. But, as his early coaches first found out, there were parts missing too. The jigsaw was incomplete, there were gaping holes in his make-up.

"I always knew he would have great success," said one of his youth team coaches in 2008. "But I have to add that he has a difficult character and this is something which needs to be dealt with. He is blessed with great agility and co-ordination which allows him to make moves which others find difficult. But he also has a tendency to pick fights with his team-mates and can get a little carried away."

What his coach knew then, the world of football knows now. His parents were impoverished Ghanaian migrants when Mario was born in Palermo, Sicily. They moved to northern Italy to find work and under pressure of circumstances handed the two-year-old boy over to foster parents. There are conflicting accounts as to why, but Mario stayed with his foster parents and adopted their surname, Balotelli. He remained in touch with his birth parents but they gradually became estranged.

Thomas Barwuah, his father, said in one interview that the family was sharing a studio flat in Brescia with another African family at the time. Mario had had prolonged intestinal problems as a baby and was just recovering from an operation when social workers suggested he be cared for by foster parents. They thought it would be a 12-month placement but the Balotellis kept extending it year after year.

Mario denies this version of events. He was quoted in 2008 as saying his birth parents never asked to have him back. "For 16 years I didn't even receive a phone call on my birthday, but now they make contact after I became a Serie A footballer. There is no bond between us and in my eyes they are just strangers."

By then he was enduring racist abuse on a sustained basis in the Italian league. He is the first high-profile black player to play for Italy, at a time when the country is dealing divisively with a major immigration issue.

He has had to cope therefore with the triple trauma of societal racism, international fame and what he believes was parental rejection. And to compound matters he seems particularly helpless to deal with any of it. Those who have worked with him describe him as chronically immature and childlike.

In August 2010, Manchester City bought him from Inter Milan for an estimated £24m.

His behaviour in England since then, on the pitch and off, has at various times outraged people or made him a laughing stock.

He has involved himself in incidents that would embarrass if not shame most ordinary people. He appears to lack the basic ability to protect himself from public ridicule.

He may be the very stereotype of the rich and spoiled modern footballer but there is about him a naivete and vulnerability that should surely make him a cause for concern, rather than a source of anger and scorn.

He is very rich and very famous, in an industry that does not know how to look after its troubled souls. It appears that he cannot help himself very much. And he has had life experiences that people would struggle to deal with in private, much less in the full glare of a very public career.

Balotelli was born lucky and unlucky. It is hard to think of a current player more ill-equipped to cope with the consequences of the gift he's been given.

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