Perhaps you’ve seen the photograph of Italian striker Mario Balotelli embracing his mother after scoring two emphatic goals in Italy’s recent 2-1 Euro semifinal victory over Germany. In the picture, we see the back of Balotelli’s mostly smooth head, along with a wisp of the cottony, peroxide-dusted Mohawk that has become his trademark. We see his mother’s face, her eyes closed, her expression full of mysterious motherly emotion as she cradles her son’s head in her age-spotted hand, wrinkled fingers spread protectively over her boy’s cranium. Is it too much to suggest that this picture of Balotelli and his mom seems in some ways to belong with the Italian pantheon that includes the work of Botticelli and Raphael?
Media coverage of Mario Balotelli tends to portray the young footballer as a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, a split-in-two figure: half soccer maestro, half egomaniacal monster. Depending on the moment, he’s either Super Mario or Stupid Mario. There are reasons for this reputation. Despite his undeniable talent, Balotelli is unpredictable in the worst and the best ways. As a striker, his sudden swerves and bursts of speed catch even experienced defenders like Germany’s Philip Lahm off-balance and out of position. So Balotelli is capable of scoring dramatic, often important goals. But as an emotionally immature 21-year-old who has been a high-profile soccer player since his teens, Balotelli’s volatile decisions on and off the pitch have also led to well-deserved ejections and other problems, such as house fires. Last spring, the day before an important match with his British Premiership club team, Mario’s house was set ablaze when someone ignited a bouquet of fireworks in the first-floor bathroom. Apparently Balotelli blamed the fire on a friend. But when someone comes over, hauls a load of fireworks into your bathroom and tells you “Seriously, don’t worry,” it’s probably your fault if your house burns down. And so sportswriters and soccer analysts, when confronted with a match in which Balotelli will appear, are quick to pose the following question: “Who will show up on game day—Super Mario or Stupid Mario?”
This question is frustratingly lazy. Of course it has entertainment value—it’s provocative—for some of the same reasons that Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde is still a compelling story. Vladimir Nabokov once noted that while Stevenson’s lurid little book is simplistic and slapdash, it also has a narrative power rooted in its suspenseful presentation of a split personality. The Jekyll and Hyde story “is beautifully constructed,” in Nabokov’s estimation, “but it is an old one. Its moral is preposterous since neither good nor evil is actually depicted… they are taken for granted, and the struggle goes on between two empty outlines.” Nabokov reveals his preference for the more modern sensibilities of Gogol and Kafka, whose fiction finds ways to question whether a character’s coherence is more complicated and subtle than a dramatic binary. But for sports analysts, in this age of media coaching for professional athletes and carefully tailored public personae, a binary personality actually seems like a lot to work with. And so they have found “two empty outlines” for Balotelli and his antics.
But that’s not enough. Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian descent and was adopted by Italian parents, has an unusual background for an Italian soccer star. And he has an unusual burden. In Europe, football fanaticism is still wrapped up in racist and nationalistic rhetoric to the extent that there are official movements to monitor and respond to derogatory chants and jeers that spread through the stands during matches. The FARE initiative is one response to the ugly songs of ignorant fans—you can apply to be a FARE monitor online, and unfortunately you’ll most likely be busy if you get the job. Incredibly, in the Euro 2012 tournament that ended with Spain’s 4-0 spanking of Italy, fines were levied for monkey chants directed at black players by Spanish fans and bananas thrown by Ukrainian fans when black players took the field. This ceremonial racism is part of the context for Balotelli’s behavior. On top of this, Balotelli is worshipped whenever he scores a goal, showered with money because of his star potential, but then completely reviled when he does something wrong. In some ways, then, Balotelli is merely an impulsive 21-year-old mirroring the fanatical public when he acts out his various mood swings. Unfortunately, in some of these moments, Balotelli climbs inside the empty outlines that commentators use to describe him.
That’s one reason the image of Mario Balotelli embracing his mom is moving. Presumably his mother knows him not as two characters, Jekyll and Hyde, but as a complex, gifted young man who has been both buoyed and bruised in his rise to fame. She might well clutch him and hope to protect him. The peak of international sports stardom is treacherous enough when it’s not paved with banana peels.