Why It Had To Be Him
Mario Balotelli seemed earnest when he told a group of assembled journalists that he was a changed man.
It was October 2011 and the Italian striker had started his second season in England well, with four goals in his first five games. His first league goal of the season was a cracker, too; a long-range effort against Everton that broke the deadlock in the 68th minute to inspire a 2-0 victory. To celebrate, he sprinted and embraced manager Roberto Mancini, who was like 'a father' to him.
Mancini couldn't contain his joy. 'My Mario,' he beamed afterwards. 'He's a good guy.'
Like any father and son, they argued. The previous season Balotelli revealed that the pair almost fell out irrevocably following his red card against Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League that had cost Manchester City a place in the knockout stages.
"He called me an idiot," the striker said glumly. "He shouted that he wished he'd never signed me."
That October, though, things were serene, despite Carlos Tevez's suspension for refusing to come on as a substitute in City's first ever away Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. "Who needs Tevez with Super Mario in top form?" asked the Daily Mail after a 4-1 win against Aston Villa on October 15 that sent City top, two points clear of rivals Manchester United. Balotelli scored a sublime overhead kick in that game, one that captured his mercurial, maddening talent.
Surgery in the previous autumn had freed him from a lingering knee injury, but the form of Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko meant he missed the start of the 2011/12 campaign. Never mind, he was making up for lost time.
The 21-year-old had moved house too, out of the city centre and away from the nightclubs and distractions that had earned him a reputation as talented, yet troubled.
"The real Mario is coming now and it isn't the same Mario as last year," he told the group. "This is down to me; it's me that changed my life. I am growing up. Everything is getting better. If last year I missed home so much, maybe now I miss it a little bit less. I'm OK now, I'm good. I'm happy – the only problem in England is the weather."
24 hours later, a bucket full of fireworks set his £3 million rented mansion ablaze, causing £400,000 worth of damage. A day after that, he'd score twice in Manchester United's heaviest defeat at Old Trafford for more than half a century, and produce perhaps the most iconic Premier League celebration ever.
The question 'Why always him?' is often asked about Balotelli, but it's difficult to answer. This is, after all, a man who wasn't legally part of the family who gave him his surname until 2008; a man who found fame and fortune at a young age, but has never returned to his ancestral home, Ghana. One who refers to his biological parents as Mr. and Mrs. Barwuah.
Born in the suburbs of Palermo to Ghanaian immigrants, Thomas, a 'poor metal worker' in his own words, and Rose Barwuah feared he would die before his second birthday because of a problem with his intestines that required a series of operations. A move to Brescia followed, and when Mario was three he was taken in by foster parents, Francesco and Silvio Balotelli.
Life was hard growing up in a middle-class white community and he suffered racial abuse at school. "He was born and raised in Italy but had to suffer the humiliation and hardships of being considered a foreigner," said his foster mother. This is, after all, a country in which the president of the Italian football federation, Carlo Tavecchio, was banned for six months by Uefa for making racist remarks last year.
His alienation forced him to become introverted and shy, and, in the book Io Vi Maledico (I Curse You), Italian journalist Concita De Gregorio quotes one of the player's former teachers, Tiziana Gatti, as saying that he had an "evident identity problem" growing up.
"He asked me more than once if his heart, inside his chest, was also black," Gatti adds in the book.
There are stories of him leaving exams during school to wander around outside, of classmates growing jealous and angry over his ability and skin tone. It's also been claimed that he washed his hands in boiling water trying to make them turn white and used felt pens to colour them pink in order to fit in, although that has never been substantiated.
Balotelli turned his back on his Ghanaian roots, took his foster family's name and in 2008, officially became an Italian citizen. "If I didn't become Mario Balotelli then Mr and Mrs Barwuah would not have cared about me for anything," he maintained of his biological parents. They deny his claims and insist Mario had a happy childhood. Their relationship has improved a little in the years since.
His talent took him to new places but he struggled to shake off his past, and his reputation as a misunderstood troublemaker grew. But he was also known as being 'endearing and kind hearted' by those who knew him at Manchester City. Former team-mate Pablo Zabaleta summed up Balotelli succinctly, as a lost boy in a man's body. "Mario is a character that, as a team-mate, sometimes you laugh at what he does and sometimes you want to kill him," the Argentine international said. "But in the end he is a great person."
Manchester City kit man Les Chapman tells a story about how the real world used to get in Balotelli's way. "He used to live at One Deansgate, which is the main shopping thoroughfare in Manchester," he says. "Opposite where he lived was a restaurant called San Carlo, and he used to drive his car across the road and park it on double yellow lines. It was about 30 yards from where he lived. He wondered why his car got impounded about 27 times."
Les said when he checked Balotelli's locker the week after he left the club 'about 30' parking ticket fines fell out. "Mourinho called him unmanageable and I think there's some truth to that. He just finds it difficult to conform to things."
By the time he'd got to Manchester, the tales of his eccentricities had reached their peak. He'd paid for everyone's fuel at a petrol forecourt (not true, he says), given £1,000 that he'd won at a casino to a tramp (not true, he says) and been sent to John Lewis for an ironing board by his Mum, only to come back with a quad bike, a scaletrix and a tennis table ("Yes. But not a tennis table, it was a trampoline.")
"He lives in his his own world," said former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson last year, as he struggled to make an impact at Anfield. Perhaps that's why he struggles to understand outside intrusion, and why he can't understand why it's always him.
There are two great ironies of Balotelli's now infamous celebration in Manchester City's 6-1 victory over Manchester United - the heaviest defeat of Sir Alex Ferguson's time in charge at Old Trafford.
The first is that it seems there were few in the ground that day who actually saw it. Ged Taylor has been a City fan for 46 years and lived to tell the tale. A season ticket holder of 13 years, Ged was there that day at Old Trafford, watching history unfold from up high, where the east stand meets the south opposite an increasingly silent Stretford End.
"We didn't see Balotelli's t-shirt until later on," he says. "We were too busy going mental". Ged would end the day "floating on a sea of Guinness" and nursing a fractured ankle he'd hurt on the walk to the ground. Still it was worth it, to see Manchester United ship six for the first time since the 30s. Too bad he could barely walk home afterwards. "All those Poznans probably didn't help…".
Manchester Evening News' Manchester City correspondent Stuart Brennan was also there and tells a similar story, of reporters gathering around TV monitors to watch a replay of the moment they'd all missed in the melee.
"It just caused general hilarity, everyone in the press box found it very funny. I don't think I have ever seen anything like that before."
It's fitting that they missed the magic moment. Because the second great irony is that it almost didn't happen at all.
Les Chapman retired as Manchester City's kit man in 2014, after more than 20 years of loyal service. There's not much he hasn't seen in his time. Les began with the club in 1992, 16 years and a million miles away from the petrodollars that flooded the club following Sheikh Mansour's takeover. He's watched City transform from perennial underachievers to title contenders, on the back of a playing career that spanned 22 seasons and more than 740 senior appearances with the likes of Oldham and Huddersfield. Only 15 players have played more league games in English football than Les.
"I've never met anyone like him in 40 years in the game," he says. "Mario is a complete one-off".
Like any kit man worth his salt, Les is more than adept at spinning the yarn. Like the time he found one of Balotelli's payslips, which revealed he'd been fined £100,000 by City that month for various indiscretions. Or the time Balotelli had him on his knees searching for a £10,000 diamond earring he'd lost during a training session.
But none quite match up to the tale of how 'Why Always Me?' came about - or almost didn't, had Balotelli got his way with his initial suggestion. In the week leading up to the game, Les was approached by the striker. "We used to have this little area behind the training ground at Carrington," he explains. "Before and after training he used to drag me around the back of there to pinch one of my cigarettes. He might have had two that day, but no more.
"This one particular morning he dragged me round and said to me: 'I want something on my t-shirt for this derby game.' I told him he couldn't have anything too offensive or controversial.
"He came out with one or two things and I said: 'no Mario, you can't have that!'. What did he ask for? Oh, I don't remember, something that would offend Manchester United fans. After a couple of suggestions and a few minutes later he just came out with it: Why Always Me?
"As soon as he said it, I knew that was the one."
Les insists that Balotelli "isn't stupid" and that certainly rings true; after the game, City's sponsors Umbro sold shirts bearing the slogan, and the Italian asked Les to try and get some commission for his marketing masterstroke. "I actually did ring them," he admits. "But they told me you can't patent words, so there was nothing forthcoming."
Neither could have known that the moment would match the occasion. Anticipation was building ahead of the derby, which was being sold not only as a battle between the two main title contenders but also as an arm-wrestle for supremacy in Manchester, and English football.
"In the build-up we were talking about the fact that the derby was back," says Stuart. "With everything that had happened at City, all of a sudden the derby was back at centre-stage again. There was very much a feeling that they had players like Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and David Silva, who were as good if not better than their United counterparts. City's fans still had the dread that had been bred into them from facing United over the years, and quite a few went into that game thinking that they might come away with a defeat."
City's new owners had spent over £930 million from their 2008 takeover up to the end of the 2011/12 campaign, but all they had to show at that point was an FA Cup final win. Balotelli would get the nod to lead the line as City looked for a defining moment that would announce their arrival, not as noisy neighbours, but as an elite power in the Premier League. All he had to do was stay out of trouble.
"At just before 1 am on Saturday, October 22, we were called to a report of a house fire at a residential home in Mottram St Andrew," read a police statement.
"Police provided assistance to Cheshire fire and rescue service, as well as ensuring residents were accounted for and there was no danger to surrounding properties. At this time, the cause of the fire is being examined by fire investigators and the police. However, it is not thought to be suspicious."
Ten firefighters attended the blaze and used breathing apparatus to put it out, staying there until 2.45am. Pictures released by the Daily Mail showed that the subsequent fire had all but melted the bath, destroyed a bathroom and left other rooms damaged by smoke.
The final bill came to £400,000, plus the £50,000 he spent on staying at the Hilton Hotel in Manchester while the house was repaired. Balotelli said in an interview with the BBC a year later: "I was bored with my friends so I got a bin, a metal one, and put fireworks inside. But nothing was gonna happen, right, so I left the room and I left the fireworks."
"I walk out and then my friend go [sic] in the room and start screaming blah blah blah and the fireworks were going off and they put the fireworks on the toilet."
As the story about the fireworks broke on Saturday morning, Les Chapman was printing Balotelli's undershirt, ready to take with him to Old Trafford.
The Financial Times would run with the headline: "Blue Fireworks: United hammered in Manchester derby" the next day, in reference not only to Balotelli's late night adventures, but also the havoc he'd caused on the pitch.
Sir Alex Ferguson could barely utter his shock after the full-time whistle had been blown by referee Mark Clattenburg. "I can't believe it," he said. "It's our worst-ever day."
Balotelli was the architect of Ferguson's downfall. Mancini hailed his football talent as being on par with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and could even laugh off the events of the previous day. "It's [just] Mario," was the best he could offer with a smile.
"I've seen Mario do things in training that I have never seen anyone do before," former Italy striker Pierluigi Casiraghi said in a recent interview. "Remember, I've played with Roberto Baggio [who almost single-handedly guided Italy to World Cup glory in 1994], Gianfranco Zola, and lots of the very best. That's when you realise his incredible potential."
On that day in Manchester, Balotelli displayed his talents in all their glory. He set fireworks off all over the pitch, opening the scoring before being felled by Jonny Evans, who was shown a red card, while through on goal. Even his substitution impacted the game; after grabbing the second goal he was replaced by Edin Dzeko, who scored two and assisted David Silva after Sergio Aguero had made it 3-0.
For a time, a result that has become so iconic didn't seem to be forthcoming; Ferguson insisted after the game that Manchester United had "battered them" for the first 40 minutes and even after Balotelli's opener minutes later, the Red Devils were able to keep the score at 1-0 with 10 men until the hour mark. They were still in it at 3-1, with only extra-time to play. Then all hell broke loose.
"It felt like payback time," says Alex Wallace, a City fan who watched on in disbelief at Old Trafford that day. "It was a game changer and I don't think derbies have been the same since.
"They'd beaten us most times since the takeover, often with last minute winners just to rub it in and make it that bit more painful. Since the 6-1, I don't think they've been quite as enthusiastic going into derbies as they once were."
Ferguson had known nothing but total dominance when it came to facing Manchester City in the past; before that fateful day at Old Trafford in 2011, the Scot had lost just five Premier League games against the old enemy. Since then, they've lost five of the last seven. City's bright new era had its defining moment.
"They call us noisy neighbours," City full-back Micah Richards said afterwards. 'Well, here we are".
The vivid memories of the game live on, but not much is ever said about Balotelli's virtuoso performance that day. For the Italian, just one iconic image remains, ingrained in the minds of fans forever.
"I don't think either of us suspected the t-shirt would go global as quickly as it did. When he came up with the statement it was perfect for him," says Les Chapman. "Initially it was amazing, but then I got hammered by David Platt because Mario lifted his match shirt over his head.
"If he'd just lifted it up to his chin, he wouldn't have got booked. So I got in a bit of trouble for it and was told in no uncertain terms that there was to be no more printing on undershirts."
It remains the perfect Balotelli moment, and in many ways the perfect Premier League moment. Umbro sold out of their replica t-shirt in days, and rapper Tinchy Stryder even released a track using the slogan.
He explained the t-shirt as a "message to those saying bad things about me", but its beauty is that it works on so many levels. Why does is it always have to be him? Why is it that the exaggerated stories of his eccentricities hit the headlines? What is it about Balotelli that makes him the way he is?
There is at least a simple explanation for his manner of celebration. Having stroked the ball into the bottom corner after 22 minutes, Balotelli calmly turned around and revealed the t-shirt. His team-mates' faces were contorted with delight, but he didn't flinch. Pierluigi Casiraghi, who looked after Balotelli during his time in charge of the Italian U21 team until 2010, revealed that his composure came from an unlikely source.
"He was always on YouTube watching clips of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He was Mario's point of reference. In fact a lot of the mannerisms you see with him, come from Ibrahimovic, such as not celebrating when he scores."
Trying to figure everything else out about Balotelli, everything that led to that one iconic moment, is a different matter altogether.
Balotelli left Manchester City in January 2013 when his performances couldn't keep pace with the headlines. He returned to Italy, to play for AC Milan, not far from his childhood home in Brescia.
Now 25-years-old and back in Italy with Milan once more, he should be approaching the peak years of a career that some thought would culminate in Ballon d'Or glory. Others foretold a different destiny. "He is condemned to chase a rainbow that he will never reach," wrote Luigi Garlando in Gazzetta dello Sport last year. "He is Ulysses without Ithaca."
Regardless of where he ends up, he'll always have his place in City folklore as the man who kicked the club out of Manchester United's shadow and into the spotlight with a dazzling display and an iconic undershirt. There would be twists to come in the most dramatic title race on record, and Balotelli would have a role to play, both good and bad. But for that one Sunday afternoon, he was everything he was destined to be.
"These days it seems quite serene, as though they have settled down into being a big club," says Stuart Brennan. "At the time it was like a revolution, there was so much upheaval with new players and managers. In terms of revolution, I think Balotelli may have been their Che Guevara."