Liverpool signed Italy striker Mario Balotelli from AC Milan for 16 million pounds ($26.5 million) on Monday, taking a calculated gamble on a headline-grabbing player known as much for his controversies as his goals.
Nineteen months after ending a 2½-year spell with Manchester City to play for his boyhood club, Balotelli will return to the English Premier League as a replacement for Luis Suarez — another of world football’s talented but disruptive stars.
“I’m happy to be back because I left England and it was a mistake,” Balotelli said. “I wanted to go to Italy but I realized it was a mistake.”
Balotelli was raised by a Jewish Italian foster mother from the age of three. Born Mario Barwuah to immigrants from Ghana in Palermo, he publicly and memorably embraced his foster mother, Silvia Balotelli, after scoring the goals in a win over Germany which secured Italy a place in the Euro 2012 finals (where Italy lost 4-0 to Spain).
The Balotellis also reportedly have relatives in Israel, and their daughter studied at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya.
Baolotelli, who has signed what Liverpool said is a “long-term deal,” has already trained at his new club and attended the team’s Premier League game against City at Etihad Stadium later Monday (which Liverpool lost 3-1). He wasn’t registered in time to play.
Liverpool has been looking to strengthen its strikeforce after selling Suarez to Barcelona for $130 million but left it to the last week of the transfer window to secure one of the summer’s most high-profile and intriguing signings.
During his time at City, in which he won the league title, Balotelli was sent off four times, threw a dart at a youth-team player and was involved in an incident that saw fireworks explode in his bathroom. Days before news of the fireworks incident emerged, Balotelli had revealed a T-shirt under his City jersey with the question, “Why Always Me?” after scoring in the team’s 6-1 win over Manchester United.
Balotelli, with his physique, technical ability and qualities as a finisher, is one of the world’s best strikers and, at 24, the best times of his career could still lie ahead of him. At Milan, he scored 26 goals in 43 league matches and he is the Italian national team’s top striker, scoring 13 goals in 33 games.
But with trouble always seeming to follow him, some are questioning whether Balotelli is worth the risk for Liverpool, which has fostered a strong team spirit under manager Brendan Rodgers that helped it finish second in the Premier League last season.
“He knows himself this is probably is last chance,” Rodgers said. “Mario is someone we can improve both as a footballer and as a person.”
Sections of the British media have reported that Balotelli has had to agree to behavior clauses being included in his contract with Liverpool.
“I believe we have the infrastructure, culture and environment to get the best out of him and help him achieve his true potential,” Rodgers said. “We are a strong group here, committed to hard work and he will benefit from being around it.
Balotelli’s Jewish “heritage” emerged two years ago.
Along with other members of the Italian team, Balotelli visited Auschwitz before the start of the Euro 2012 tournament, which was co-hosted by Poland, and he was reportedly the player most affected by the visit.
According to a Radio Netherlands report, Balotelli sat down alone on the train tracks at the death camp, staring silently ahead. “A while later, he tells his team-mates about a box of letters that his Jewish adoptive mother kept underneath her bed. He had never told anyone.”
Balotelli, 21, was one of four children born to Christian parents Thomas and Rose Barwuah, immigrants from Ghana. He suffered with life-threatening health issues, requiring frequent intestinal surgery, and his poor health put a heavy strain on his already impoverished family. After they sought state assistance following a move to Milan, the authorities suggested he be placed into foster care, according to the Radio Netherlands report, which is partly based on his biological parents’ account:
“That’s how Mario Barwuah came into contact with the Balotellis” — Francesco and Silvia — “a white family who lived in a villa in a small nearby village. At first, he stayed at the Balotellis during the week and returned to his family on weekends. But after a while things changed. Mario started to treat his (biological) parents with indifference. Ultimately, he took his weekday family’s surname.”
When he became successful as a soccer player, his biological parents sought to re-enter his life, but Balotelli rejected them as “glory hunters.”
Despite his unpromising health and complex family background, Balotelli proved to be a soccer prodigy, becoming the youngest player ever to play in Italy’s third division, at age 15, and ultimately impressing as a player for top Italian side Inter Milan. He then moved to England’s Manchester City.
The player described the 2012 victory against Germany as “the most wonderful night of my life so far.”
Dedicating his goals to “my mother,” who had come from Italy to watch him play, Balotelli said: “At the end of the game when I went to my mother, that was the best moment. I told her these goals were for her. I waited a long time for this moment, especially as my mother is not young anymore and can’t travel far, so I had to make her happy when she came all the way here.”