It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday at the St. Regis hotel in Miami Beach, and (what else is new?) Mario Balotelli is drawing a crowd. In exactly one week Super Mario will meet Pope Francis, who will single out Balotelli for a private-audience from among a group that includes Lionel Messi and the Argentine and Italian national soccer teams. But here in this Balo-benighted swath of Florida the story is different. Posing for an SI photo shoot, the 23-year-old star forward of Italy and AC Milan is towering — 6′ 2″, shirtless, Mohawked, arms extended wide — on a plexiglass platform that makes it look as though he’s walking on the liquid surface of a swimming pool.
Perhaps the pope would approve. Perhaps not.
Gawkers gather and snap cellphone photographs. One tourist, bare-chested and pot-bellied, takes a stab at the subject’s identity. “Shoot, is he a politician?” the man asks, his voice amply ‘Murcan. “My wife says I should know him.”
What exactly there is about the scene that causes him to think politician is left unsaid. But the notion that anyone can be anything in America fascinates Balotelli, the most interesting man in the world (soccer edition), by turns a national hero and the target of national prejudice, who was born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents but (by law) couldn’t become an Italian citizen until he turned 18. On Balotelli’s rollicking Twitter feed (@FinallyMario), which includes photos with everyone from the Pope to his new pet piglet, he tagged President Obama with a happy birthday wish and invited him to Milan’s Aug. 7 game in Miami.
“I’ve never cared about politics, but I think he is a great man,” says Balotelli, holding court in English back in the hotel. He’s wearing diamond earrings the size of grapes, a trucker hat bearing an African lion and the word king, a scoop-neck T-shirt that shows off his rippling muscles and, this being Florida, jorts. “Obama can be like a new start for everybody,” Balotelli goes on. “Just the fact that he’s black and he’s the first one.”
A new start for everybody. In terms of identity, at least, there’s a parallel with Balotelli, the first black Italian to play in a major soccer tournament. Balotelli made Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people not just because he’s one of the most promising, feared and provocative players in soccer, but also because he represents the New Europe, the continuing spread of the black diaspora to countries where there has been scant African influence. In the past decade Italy’s population of immigrants — the majority of them from Africa — has more than doubled, to 7.5%. What is it like to be black and Italian? “It’s amazing,” says Balotelli. “And now there are a lot more coming, so I’m not alone anymore.”
Nor does he go unrecognized in the U.S. any longer, Florida retirees notwithstanding. When Balotelli visited New York City with AC Milan earlier this month, he was swamped by fans as he walked to see the Empire State Building. “Four years ago I came to New York, and nobody stopped me, nobody said anything,” he recalls. “Now people are stopping me, asking for my picture and an autograph.”
PHOTOS: All 2013 Sports Illustrated covers
With Balotelli, though, even the Empire State Building is fraught with complexity. Before last year’s Euro 2012 quarterfinal against England, the Italian daily La Gazzetta dello Sport ran a cartoon depicting Balotelli astride London’s Big Ben, swatting away soccer balls like King Kong atop the Manhattan skyline. The newspaper apologized and Balotelli went on to score two thundering goals in Italy’s semifinal upset of Germany, but the cartoon was one more example of the racism Balotelli has faced, going back to his childhood in rural Brescia with his foster family (which happens to be white and which formally adopted him at 18).
“You can’t delete racism,” says Balotelli, who has been the target of bananas and monkey chants from fans in Italy and other countries. “It’s like a cigarette. You can’t stop smoking if you don’t want to, and you can’t stop racism if people don’t want to. But I’ll do everything I can to help.”
In the fun-house world of Mario Balotelli, you never know what’s coming next. In the seven days after his walk-on-water photo shoot, Molto Mario appears in a YouTube video playing the national anthem of Italy on a grand piano; scores a devastatingly efficient preseason goal in Miami against the Los Angeles Galaxy; posts Twitter photos of his new two-month-old pig, Super; appears in another YouTube clip throwing down dunks on a basketball court; celebrates his 23rd birthday at his Milan house, which features a giant gold-tile MB45 mosaic fountain and a life-sized statue of himself; announces after further examination of his pig that he “can’t find the willy, so I think is a she . . . but maybe a he!”; and meets the pope, who apparently finds Balotelli more intriguing than the pontiff’s Argentine countryman, Messi.
WAHL: Dempsey opens up about move back to MLS
At this point there’s no doubt: Balotelli has joined Diego Maradona as global soccer’s preeminent entries in the Tyson Zone, where athletes can be reported doing things that might be absolutely crazy for everyone else but still ring as potentially true because, well, it’s Mario Balotelli. The Tyson Zone was made for the British tabloids, which ran so many reports of Balotelli’s exploits (real and otherwise) during his three years at Manchester City that they took on a life of their own. But as Balotelli counsels on his Twitter profile (in English, no less), “Don’t believe anything you read about me unless is coming from here.” All of which makes for an entertaining game of fact or fiction when Balotelli grants a rare sit-down in Miami:
You recently took your Ferrari F12 Berlinetta and drove it around on a go-kart track? “Yeah, the go-kart track is my go-kart track, so I went inside with my car. There are no problems.”
You played the Italian national anthem on a grand piano on YouTube? “I’m good, yeah?” Is it real? “I have to say yes, of course.” Promise? “Promise? No. But I say yes!”
You gave a homeless man $2,500 in cash? “No.”
You drove to a school to confront a bully who made one of your fans cry? “No.”
You started a fire with your friends in your Manchester house when a firework went off in your bathroom? “Yeah, that’s one. But it wasn’t me. I got unlucky. It wasn’t like my house was on fire. It was just the bathroom, because one firework went the wrong way. It took the curtain, and the curtain got on fire and the smoke went around the house. But we weren’t inside. We were outside with the fireworks.”
You got fined by your team for throwing darts at youth-team players? “I was playing darts, yes, but I never threw darts at anyone.”
You’re tight with AC Milan owner and embattled former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi? “I talk with him, yes. It’s not a big relationship, but we speak occasionally.”
You still have a camouflage Bentley? “No, I gave it to [Milan teammate Urby] Emanuelson. But he took the wrap off, and now it’s white.”
And so it goes. Balotelli frowns, appearing slightly disappointed that the world has one less camouflage Bentley these days. But frowns don’t last long in Balotelli’s universe –unless he’s on the field, one of the many paradoxes about him. The same Super Mario who doffs his jersey, flexes his muscles and refuses even to grin after scoring goals is also a serial user of smiley-face emo-ti-cons. An hour after his interview a direct message comes over the Twitter transom: