Hey, Mario Balotelli, if you weren't a soccer player, what would you be?
The world's most intriguing footballer pauses and then exhales loudly. "Probably I would study," Balotelli says, leaning forward in his chair at a Miami Beach hotel. But not just any ordinary kind of studying. Remember, this is Super Mario we're talking about. "I would not stop with the muay thai," he continues, warming up to the idea. "I know it's dangerous to kick and elbow, but maybe I would run forward with that, because I like it."
"I like UFC, you know!"
There are a few people who might be interested in this news. If I'm UFC boss Dana White, and I'm trying to make my sport bigger in Europe, I'd be on the phone to Balotelli's agent, Mino Raiola, in a heartbeat proposing an off-season exhibition next year. And if I was an AC Milan executive, I'd make sure there was an ironclad clause in Balo's contract that kept him as far away from a UFC octagon as possible.
But part of you knows: It would be a lot of fun to see Mario give it a shot.
This week Balotelli became just the second non-U.S. pro soccer player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine since 1994. (David Beckham was the first, in 2007.) It's an arresting cover image by photographer Jeffrey A. Salter -- Balotelli, balanced on a plexiglass platform, appears to be walking on water—and probably one of my favorite 20 SI covers of all time.
Why is Balotelli on the cover? Well, in each of the past two years I've asked my Twitter followers: If you could pick one figure from the world of soccer to read about in a magazine profile, who would it be? On both occasions, Balotelli won in a landslide. The reasons are clear: Balotelli, 23, has shown extraordinary goal-scoring potential on the soccer field, and he has many sides off it: a symbol of the New Europe; a creator of madcap hijinks; an emerging leader in soccer's fight against racism.
I first approached Raiola, Europe's answer to Scott Boras, about a Balotelli magazine story in June 2012, just after Balo had scored two goals in Italy's Euro 2012 semifinal win over Germany. And, 14 months later, Balotelli spent two hours with SI during Milan's stay in Miami for the International Champions Cup. Salter conducted the photo shoot during the first hour, not least because the Miami weather forecast called for rain at any moment and we didn't want to have to scrap the outdoor set-up (which took more than four hours to prepare).
Balotelli was a little dubious that the plexiglass platform would support his weight at first, but he quickly warmed up to the shoot, literally so (it was so hot and humid that he had to be toweled off frequently). After the pool shoot was complete, Balotelli and Salter moved indoors for a portrait in his AC Milan shirt, and then Mario and I sat down across from each other for an interview of nearly an hour. (A photo is now on my Twitter background at @GrantWahl.)
Balotelli doesn't agree to many one-on-one interviews, but he was extremely engaging during ours. I had seen his interview with CNN earlier this year, and his English is better than most people would think. "It's so-so," Balotelli says, underplaying it a bit. "The first time I came and spoke English, everybody was like, 'Huh, you speak English?!?' But I had studied some, and then I was in Manchester. I didn't have Italian friends there, just English friends, so I was hearing English, English, English, and I got it."
Man City had hired a series of English tutors for Balotelli, everyone from a stern disciplinarian to a young male teacher to an, ahem, attractive young female, but Balo didn't have much patience for them. "I never used them," he says, smiling. "That's why my grammar isn't always correct."
You never know how an interview is going to go, especially when you've spent 14 months trying to land it and know you're not going to get more than one crack at it. When I sat down with Clint Dempsey in New York last week, I knew it would be a quality interview because we go back a long ways. But when you meet someone like Balotelli for the first time and then have to develop a rapport instantly, you have to take a deep breath and hope for the best.
And just prepare and be yourself. I did explain to him what Sports Illustrated was, and who we reached, and (knowing that he's a fan of President Obama) that there was a decent chance that Obama would end up reading the magazine story. Maybe that wasn't necessary, but Balotelli was switched on the entire time, providing so many good answers and acting so natural -- he even called his mom during the interview -- that I ended up having an excess of good stuff.
Here are some of the best B-sides from the Balotelli interview that didn't make the magazine article:
• On what he thinks of the United States:
"America is a great country. I've been in the south, in the center and in the north. I like it. Americans are very good people. There's just too much air-conditioning."
• On what he likes in North American pop culture:
"R&B, pop. My friend is Drake. I've met him four or five times now. I also like Kobe Bryant. I'm in touch with him sometimes. I would like to meet Will Smith and Denzel Washington. They're great actors."
• On the ways in which being in Milan is different from being in Manchester:
"I'm home. I'm 60 kilometers from my house [in Brescia, where he grew up]. I'm usually with my family. I'm relaxed. My friends, they can come. It's not like in Manchester. That wasn't my own. I couldn't tell my [Italian] friends to come because they were working. Just the fact that I'm home, it makes me happy. I'm calmed down. I grew up."
"Maybe I missed my family and friends too much in Manchester. Manchester City, the club and the fans, they were amazing. But I'm sorry, the city wasn't that nice. I was all the time at home, and I didn't enjoy it. It was raining all the time. I was a little bit upset."
• On the connection he feels with Ghana, the country where his birth parents were born:
"Inside me I'm Ghanaian, and I'm proud to be African. But of course I'm Italian. I was born in Italy. I've never been to Africa in my life, but I will go one day."
• On the teams he followed as a kid:
"I always wanted to play for AC Milan or Real Madrid. Real Madrid, of course, because when I was young the players that played there were the top players. I was looking at Real Madrid as the best of the best. And AC Milan, they also had good players when I was young, so I looked at AC Milan the same way as Real Madrid. I always said if I was going to go to one team in Italy, I wanted to play at AC Milan."
• On being named one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world:
"It was nice. I know in America there are people who love soccer, and there people that don't even know soccer. It was something to be known even over here. That's always good."
• On smiling a lot in person but not smiling on the field:
"When I was in Manchester, sometimes I was upset. But normally I always joke and smile. I'm a happy person."
• On José Mourinho, his manager at Inter:
"As a manager, like with training and motivation, I think he's the absolute number one. As a person I had some misunderstandings [with him], but I was O.K. Even two days ago when we played against them [in New Jersey], I said hi and we talked a bit. He was nice."
• On Roberto Mancini, his manager at Man City and Inter:
"Mancini is a great manager as well. He's a great person, an amazing man. When I talk about Mancini, I can only say thanks for what he did for me."
• On Max Allegri, his manager at AC Milan:
"Ah, he's good. I like him. He's young, as well. He understands us. When we want to have fun, he's the first, but then when we have to be serious, he wants us to be serious."
• On the chance of meeting LeBron (King) James, with my noting that Balotelli was wearing a trucker hat that said KING on it with a lion:
"No, for me the real king is Kobe [Bryant]. I like LeBron. He's an amazing sportsman and basketball player, but for me Kobe is on another level. When I saw Kobe in Brazil, I just wished for him to come back as quickly as possible from his injury. Otherwise I'm not watching the NBA anymore."
And with that Super Mario let out a big laugh, one of many during an interview that I won't soon forget.