You could hear the revs of the engine from 100 metres. Swiftly, the bright red sports car reached the front gate of Pinetina, the training headquarters of Inter Milan. The man at the wheel hit his brakes at the gate, cheerily waved at the attendant, lifted the peak of his baseball cap and, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, smiled before hitting the accelerator again to head down the long drive to park. Mario Balotelli, tall and fashionably clothed, then made his way to the dressing-room as older men smiled wisely to themselves at the ostentation of youth, wealth and cockiness. That was the scene 10 days ago, just before Inter set off for their match at Bologna.
Balotelli, 18, might have driven as if he was in a rush to meet a deadline for departure, but on this occasion he had at least arrived on time. He isn't always so punctual. Ten days earlier Balotelli had been late for his appointment with the Italy under-21 team, missing his flight to Trieste from Milan. Reports emerged he may have overslept because he had been up late in a nightclub. The young man was told by Inter's coach, Jose Mourinho that he was welcome to leave the club, on loan, in the January transfer window, because he needed to grow up and appreciate that a professional footballer required self-discipline to thrive, however great his talent.
Balotelli stayed, Mourinho forgave, and against Bologna, some 24 hours after he zoomed noisily into work, he produced a stunning, late winning goal for Inter, a free-kick from long distance. The following weekend, Balotelli scored twice in the home draw with Roma. The first goal was again struck from distance, the second a cool penalty after the player himself had been impeded in the area. In barely 110 minutes on the pitch, Balotelli had earned four points for Inter in their last two fixtures to help sustain their lead in Serie A. So, has the troublesome teenager turned a corner, grown up, buckled down?
It is too early to say, given the disciplinary problems Mourinho publicised earlier in the season. Is he a star of the future? With his long stride, wonderful balance, speed, control and his cockiness, Balotelli should be. He should become a huge star in the Italian game, and an important one for reasons beyond his brilliance. Balotelli is an unusual Italian footballer, in that he is black. He was born in Palermo, Sicily, to Ghanaian parents who, when he was three, gave him up for adoption to an Italian couple.
That background gave him a choice of passport. Eighteen months ago, Ghana called up Balotelli to their senior squad. He said no. Six months ago he declared he felt Italian and his loyalty to his adoptive parents was stronger than to his natural mother and father, who are still in contact with him. The issue of his national allegiance obliged him to make these emotions public. Nor, even in the 21st century, is it easy being an African-Italian footballer. His colour, alas, is still an issue for some numbskulls
Roma have just been fined for racist chanting by fans during Sunday's thriller at the San Siro. If he fulfils his vast potential, the same fans will be cheering Balotelli for Italy over the next decade. @Email:email@example.com