“I love Naples and Neapolitans,” Mario Balotelli said this week. “I’m always sorry to face them as an opponent.”
The striker has emotional ties to the city and its people, with his attachment to Naples made plain in front of the world’s cameras in February 2014. Playing for Milan, Super Mario was substituted after 73 minutes of a 3-1 defeat, and promptly burst into tears.
Rumours quickly spread on social media that the Italian international had been racially abused, with unscrupulous “banter” accounts using the young man’s pain in the service of clicks, likes and retweets.
Others simply chortled about “Mario being Mario”. He missed a chance, got substituted and cried about it? Well, that’s just another one to add to the list of Balotelli antics.
The truth though was something rather more understandable. In the preceding week, DNA tests had proven that Balotelli was the father of Pia, the daughter born to his ex-girlfriend Raffaella Fico on December 5, 2012.
A long and at times bitter legal fight saw Mario refuse any contact with the child until he could be sure she was his, something which proved difficult as two sets of lawyers couldn’t agree on how to conduct a DNA test.
After it was confirmed he was Pia’s father, Balotelli immediately took responsibility for her, to his credit, something which flies in the face of his - at times deserved - public image of lacking maturity.
“Writing ‘Dad’ gave me an explosion of emotion, but now I want to keep this joy for myself,” the forward wrote in an open letter at the time. “I hope my silence can help people understand there is a child here who doesn’t know how the media or television worlds work. I hope my few words can help to definitively put an end to this affair.”
As fate would have it, Pia was born in Naples and Balotelli would face them with Milan that weekend. Super Mario hoped to score for his daughter in her home town, and wore a T-Shirt under his kit with a message for her.
However, it turned out to be a frustrating evening for the Rossoneri, and for Balotelli in particular.
With around 20 minutes to play, Pepe Reina rushed off his line to challenge the striker, but completely missed the ball. Mario wasn’t expecting it though, and he put the ball wide with the goal at his mercy. He had missed his big chance, and was substituted soon after. After what must have been a difficult week, his tears were completely understandable.
His most recent visit to the San Paolo brought frustration of a different kind, as Balotelli played just three minutes of a 1-1 draw. Similarly, his visit to Naples with Manchester City in the Champions League saw the striker score, but end up on the wrong end of a 2-1 defeat.
Known as a penalty specialist, even his first missed spot kick came against the Partenopei, Reina saving his effort at San Siro in September 2013.
Still though, that night of tears in 2014 could be seen as a turning point in Mario’s career. Along with the death of his adopted father, being a father to Pia has seen a new maturity in Balotelli.
He may have failed at Liverpool and in a loan return to Milan, but think about it, did you hear anything about his behaviour off the pitch? His move to Nice attracted mirth, particularly in sections of the English media, but Balotelli scored 15 times in 23 Ligue 1 games as Les Aiglons surprisingly qualified for the Champions League play-offs.
With only a 12-month contract, the striker could have opted to chase the money and moved elsewhere, but he decided to stay in France, clearly viewing the Allianz Riviera as the best place to finally fulfil his potential.
Sadly, he may not be able to play on Wednesday, with Coach Lucien Favre confirming a knee injury is likely to rule him out. Still, if there’s any chance, you can be sure Balotelli will be desperate to play.
“He’s happy to return to Naples,” Nice general manager Julien Fournier explained on Radio Kiss Kiss Napoli. “He loves his daughter, and he’s happy to return.”
Even if we may not see him on the pitch this week, Balotelli has intimated that he could one day play for Napoli. Either way, the city and its club will always hold a special place in the heart of the enigmatic striker.