Combining sublime talent with a knack for attracting the wrong kind of headlines, Mario Balotelli is already one of the most talked-about footballers on the planet at just 22 years of age. If nothing else, he is a player guaranteed to leave no one indifferent.
Having already crammed much into his short career, the youngster has announced himself as an explosive striker capable of playing across the front line, while he possesses a technique so natural that he is often accused of nonchalance. What is inarguable is that Balotelli can change the course of a match with a single strike of the ball, and he is equally effective from set-pieces, having buried all 13 of his penalty attempts as well as both his spot-kicks during shoot-outs.
Born to Ghanaian parents Thomas and Rose in Palermo on 12 August 1990, Balotelli suffered severe intestinal problems as a child and underwent a series of operations. Unable to pay for his treatment, his parents – who had moved to Lombardy – agreed to let their three-year-old son be put in a foster home. Raised by Francesco and Silvia Balotelli, he nevertheless had to wait until he turned 18 before acquiring Italian citizenship on 13 August 2008.
By then, Balotelli had already made his professional debut for third-tier Lumezzane on 2 April 2006, benefiting from a special exemption so that he could play before his 16th birthday. Two months later, he was given a trial by Barcelona, and he was soon on the move to Inter Milan, taking his first steps in Serie A at the age of 17 on 16 December 2007, featuring in a 2-0 success against Cagliari.
Over the next three seasons at the San Siro, he won three league titles, the UEFA Champions League, a Coppa Italia and an Italian Super Cup, while scoring 28 goals in 86 games, clashing with coach Jose Mourinho and provoking plenty of controversy. The Balotelli legend was well and truly under way.
Tempted by the prospect of playing in the Premier League, the forward signed for Manchester City at the start of the 2010/11 campaign. The unwanted headlines followed him to England, however, and his relations with manager Roberto Mancini veered from one extreme to the other until he packed his bags for AC Milan in January this year.
"He has the potential to become one of the best strikers in the world," said Mancini, as Balotelli left behind a tally of 30 strikes in 80 matches. "I adore Mario, but he has to start thinking about his work." So far, the transfer has paid off, with Balotelli in good hands back in Milan and having helped the club climb the table with seven goals in his first eight appearances.
His experiences with the national team have been far more unambiguously positive, meanwhile. Despite a reputation for intransigence, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli clearly has a soft spot for the Rossoneri marksman, whom he called up for the first time two days short of his 20th birthday for the 1-0 loss to Côte d'Ivoire on 10 August 2010.
Balotelli went on to enjoy an excellent UEFA EURO 2012, in particular notching a semi-final double against Germany, and he has become a first-choice forward alongside 20-year-old Milan team-mate Stephan El Shaarawy. Together, the duo have combined perfectly, their different qualities gelling to produce an exciting partnership brimming with future promise.