Mario Balotelli scored his first goal for his hometown club on Sunday, not that he needed it to make headlines. He had stolen the show as soon as he emerged from the tunnel at the Stadio San Paolo, carrying his six-year-old daughter, Pia. She stayed with him all through the pre-game handshakes before Brescia’s match against Napoli, then went to join her mother, Raffaella Fico, in the stands.
The tenderness of their interactions would have melted hearts under any circumstances. But there was a layer of history here as well. In 2014, Balotelli wept for Pia in the away dugout at this same stadium, overwhelmed by emotions in the week when his paternity was confirmed by a DNA test.
So many things were different back then. Balotelli was playing for Milan, and starting regularly for the Italian national team. He occupied a space at the centre of a nation’s attention, his turbulent relationship with Fico a favourite topic of gossip magazines. Days earlier, Gazzetta dello Sport had dedicated a full front page to his haircut.
You could hardly say that Balotelli has a low profile today, but the context has certainly changed. His star waned during consecutive difficult seasons with Liverpool and then back at Milan. The striker found happier homes in Nice and Marseille, but he was still out of sight and out of mind for many Italians. Of Balotelli’s 36 caps for the Azzurri, only three have arrived in the past five years.
Perhaps, on a personal level, a bit of space was exactly what he needed. Balotelli’s relationship with Fico has certainly improved. He did not get to meet Pia for the first time until a family court date two months after his tears against Napoli. These days he sees her regularly, and shares jokes with Fico on social media.
If Balotelli could have had things all his own way this summer, they would all be closer still. Pia lives with Fico in Naples. In March, Balotelli told the newspaper La Provence that Napoli were the only team in Italy that he wanted to play for. That was before Brescia won promotion to the top flight. The idea that Balotelli could ever represent his own city’s club might have seemed fanciful while they were toiling in Serie B. Frankly, it still did even after they finished in first place.
But Brescia are owned by Massimo Cellino these days, a man fond of making headlines of his own. He appealed to Balotelli’s emotions and made it clear that he was willing to shatter the club’s wage structure. It was enough to overcome the player’s reluctance to get involved in a relegation scrap. Balotelli soon found joy in familiar surroundings. “The most beautiful thing is getting to eat lunch and dinner with my mum,” he told the broadcaster Dazn. “The last time I ate regularly with my mum I was 14 years old.”
Suspended for the first four games of the new season, thanks to a red card he received for a dangerous challenge in his final appearance for Marseille, Balotelli made his debut in Tuesday’s home defeat against Juventus. To go from there to an away game against Napoli represented about as challenging a reintroduction to Serie A as can be imagined.
The fixture list had already done no favours to Brescia, handing them just one home game out of the first four. And yet, they were competitive even without Balotelli. Alfredo Donnarumma – Serie B’s top scorer last season – already had three goals in four matches before adding another against Juventus. Sandro Tonali has been a revelation in midfield, a 19-year-old who dictates the tempo and direction of a game as though he has been doing it for a lifetime.
The latter would sparkle once again on Sunday. Napoli jumped out to an early lead against Brescia, Dries Mertens converting José Callejón’s clumsy cutback before Kostas Manolas – having already seen one goal (rightly) disallowed – made it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time. Brescia, though, refused to be overawed. Tonali thought he had reduced the arrears with a beautifully-struck first-time shot from the edge of the box shortly after the break, but a VAR review found that Dimitri Bisoli had fouled Nikola Maksimovic to win back possession in the build-up.
Instead, it would be Balotelli who scored next: heading home from a Tonali corner. It was his first goal in Serie A for 1,468 days. He celebrated with the same understated manner that he has for so many others: raising a simple thumbs-up towards his teammate as he turned to jog back towards the centre-circle.
It was not enough to rescue a draw for Brescia, though they pressed hard against opponents who lost both of their starting centre-backs – Manolas and Maksimovic – to injury in the second half. But Balotelli’s goal and smooth integration will provide further encouragement to a side that has stayed true to their attack-minded and ambitious footballing identity under Eugenio Corini.
For Balotelli himself, the abiding memory of this match would simply be that moment before kick-off with his daughter. He posted a picture on Instagram later in the day, describing it as a “dream come true”.
Among the ‘likes’ it received was one from the Italy manager, Roberto Mancini. They, too, have shared history, title winners together at Manchester City. At 29 years old, Balotelli hopes there is time yet for their relationship to flourish anew as well.
The Guardian Sport