words by Carol King
American magazine ‘TIME’ has devoted its iconic front-cover slot to Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli.
A photo of the 22-year-old footballer, nicknamed ‘Super Mario’, appears alongside the cover line “The Meaning of Mario: What the phenomenon of Mario Balotelli says about football, race and European identity.”
A striker for English Premier League club Manchester City, Balotelli is the first black player to represent Italy at major tournaments such as the Euro 2012 championship in July. He was born in Palermo, Sicily to Ghanaian parents but he grew up in an Italian foster family.
Rome correspondent for ‘TIME’, Stephan Faris, was one of two journalists to conduct the interview with Balotelli. Faris told ‘Italy Magazine’ why ‘TIME’ decided to feature Balotelli on the cover: “I’ve been watching him for years, as a kind of fascinating microcosm of the struggles Italy is going through as it goes from a country that people left to one where people want to come.
“After his performance at Euro 2012 this summer – and Manchester City’s victory in the Premier League [in May 2012] – it seemed the time had come to interview him. He’s a fascinating character in his own right, but his story also resonates with the larger story going on in Italy and Europe.”
Balotelli spoke frankly in what is a rare interview by the young player. He spoke about the racist abuse he has endured during his football career. When asked if him being a black player in Italy had helped change attitudes there, he said: “Racist people are few and you can do nothing... because they are just stupid people.”
In the video on the ‘TIME’ website accompanying the interview, Balotelli is softly spoken and very engaging. Faris told ‘Italy Magazine’ of his experience interviewing Balotelli: “He was very polite, but also at first very guarded. When he first came out to the media room out by the parking lot, where the portraits of him were to be shot, he pretty much immediately turned around and went back in. It was clear that sitting and answering questions for the media was the last thing he wanted to do.
“But later, once we sat down with him in an office inside the Man City headquarters, he loosened up and gave some really insightful answers. You can see his body language in the video we have online. He sits quite still as he answers questions, but occasionally breaks out into this really amazing smile.”
The issue of ‘TIME’ featuring Balotelli will hit newsstands 12 November. The Azzurri player follows in the footsteps of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, who was featured on a ‘TIME’ front cover in February 2012, and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who was on a cover in November 2011.