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Mario Balotelli: Last chance saloon for Berlusconi's 'rotten apple'

By Tom McGowan, CNN
February 1, 2013 -- Updated 1239 GMT (2039 HKT)
Mario Balotelli was mobbed by fans outside a restaurant as he returned home to Italy to complete his $30 million move from AC Milan to Manchester City. Mario Balotelli was mobbed by fans outside a restaurant as he returned home to Italy to complete his $30 million move from AC Milan to Manchester City.
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Home again
Training ground fracas
Balotelli's breakthrough
Testing the Special One
Red mist
'Why always me?'
Super Mario
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mario Balotelli returns to Italy joining AC Milan from Manchester City
  • Balotelli recently brawled with City manager Roberto Mancini
  • Italian international striker joined City from Italian club Inter Milan
  • Balotelli has been sent off six times in his career

(CNN) -- Despite being recently branded a "rotten apple" by AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, Mario Balotelli was treated to a rapturous reception on his return to the northern Italian city.

With votes at stake in the Italian elections -- La Stamp estimates the signing of "Super Mario" could be worth 400,000 votes as Berlusconi attempts a political comeback -- his new boss' blunt assessment was quickly forgotten as the former Italian prime minister sanctioned a $30 million deal to sign Balotelli.

His transfer ends the striker's whirlwind two-and-half-year stay with English champions Manchester City, during which time a litany of dust-ups have allowed Balotelli to become a caricature of the modern playboy footballer -- sporting talent and tabloid cult hero rolled into one.

One of his final acts as a City player was a training ground brawl with team manager Roberto Mancini, pictures of which were sprawled across newspapers.

In the aftermath of the dust-up, Balotelli's teammate Carlos Tevez offered to counsel the 22-year-old striker.

When Tevez, infamous for refusing to come off the substitutes bench during a match last season and subsequently going AWOL for three months, is doling out advise, it might be to seriously consider where your career is headed.

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was photographed grappling with his firebrand striker Mario Balotelli during a training run on Thursday, prompting coaching staff to intervene to separate the pair. Mancini later downplayed the tussle, sparked by Balotelli's hostile tackle on a fellow player, as "nothing unusual." Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini was photographed grappling with his firebrand striker Mario Balotelli during a training run on Thursday, prompting coaching staff to intervene to separate the pair. Mancini later downplayed the tussle, sparked by Balotelli's hostile tackle on a fellow player, as "nothing unusual."
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Balotelli\'s training ground bust up Balotelli's training ground bust up
Euro 2012 sparked into life when striker Robert Lewandowski scored the first goal of the tournament against Greece. Despite a lively opening, the co-hosts had to settle for a 1-1 draw. Euro 2012 sparked into life when striker Robert Lewandowski scored the first goal of the tournament against Greece. Despite a lively opening, the co-hosts had to settle for a 1-1 draw.
Euro 2012 highlights
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Unforgettable moments of Euro 2012 Unforgettable moments of Euro 2012

Having signed a four-and-a-half-year deal, Balotelli's future now lies back in Milan, where he rose to prominence with AC's city rivals Inter between 2006 and 2010.

Myriad stories -- both mythical and true -- surround Balotelli, who recently unveiled a head of bleach-blonde hair ahead of a match between second-place City and Arsenal.

There's the one about Balotelli driving into a women's prison, or the time he reportedly threw darts at youth team players out of a training ground window -- not to mention the impromptu bonfire which burned down his bathroom hours before he became the face of a firework safety campaign.

Or Balotelli being stopped by police for having thousands of pounds in a bag on the passenger seat of his car.

His alleged response when inquisitive officers asked why he was carrying such a huge amount of cash was to say: "Because I'm rich."

Outrageous talent

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City showed admirable patience with their mercurial marksman, hoping he could consistently produce the form which saw him spearhead Italy's run to the final of Euro 2012.

Balotelli endured a tempestuous relationship with former Inter coach and current Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho, but in Mancini, also a one-time coach of the Italian international at the Nerazzurri, he found a staunch ally, though the City manager used the striker with increasing sparsity.

It's this mix of lashings of outrageous talent, outlandish behavior and childish ill-discipline -- Balotelli has already picked up six red cards in his fledgling career -- which have made him a gold mine for newspapers.

Vincent Pericard is one former player who has experienced the high of being at a leading club and the low of languishing in the game's lesser leagues.

Born in Cameroon, Pericard was raised in France -- representing his adoptive country at under-21 level -- before he was snapped up by Italian giants Juventus as a teenager.

A bright future was predicted for the striker, but after leaving Juve in 2002 he moved to England and spent a decade slowly falling through the leagues.

He made five appearances for sixth-tier club Havant & Waterlooville before retiring from football in 2012, aged just 29.

Since quitting the game, Pericard has set up Elite Welfare Management, a business aimed at helping foreign players settle within the English game.

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"The organization is the sum of my own experiences," the former Stoke City and Portsmouth player told CNN.

"We want to stop players wasting their talent. We should support and understand what makes him behave the way he does, instead of judging him and saying he is a lunatic or he is not bothered," added Pericard, referring to Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian heritage and was born in Perugia and raised by an adoptive family in Brescia in northern Italy.

"All the problems relate to the social side of being a human being and how you interact with other people and how you interact with a new culture and how you adapt to it."

Football clubs are experts when it comes to keeping a player in peak physical condition, but Pericard is convinced the game has room for improvement when it comes to addressing issues of mental well-being.

"A player spends 80% of his time outside of the club's supervision and only 20% inside of the club," continued the Frenchman.

"It is one thing to look at how a player is physically, but the mental well being of a player is just as important. It can be the difference between teams going up, getting relegated or reaching the Champions League.

"The mind plays a massive part in a player's development and performance and this is something clubs need to tap into if they want to increase their chances of winning."

The view that talent alone is not enough is one which is widely supported by sports psychologists.

That is an approach not lost on five-time European champions Liverpool.

As part of a new philosophy adapted by manager Brendan Rodgers, -- appointed at Anfield in June last year -- the club recruited Dr Steve Peters, who helped hone the minds of Britain's all-conquering Olympic cyclists.

"It is absolutely vital that young players are given support right from the start," said Rebecca Symes, Sport Psychologist from British organization Sporting Success, who argues the amount of psychological support available to footballers decreases as they progress into the first team.

The Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), a body which represents the interests of soccer players in England and Wales, was not available for comment when contacted by CNN.

"The transition from an academy into a senior squad is a really significant time," continued Symes. "I don't think enough emphasis is put on providing support to players during this transition and then throughout their professional career.

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"While the access to support is a lot better compared to 10 years ago there is a lot of work still to do, especially in football."

With clubs in England's top division receiving unprecedented levels of income -- the recent sale of EPL television rights domestically and internationally is set to generate more than $8 billion according to British media reports -- Symes sees no reason why mental health professionals should not be given a higher profile at clubs.

"Don't get me wrong there is some great work being done by organisations such as the PFA; Sporting Chance Clinic and the like. But appropriately qualified internal backroom staff fully integrated within a club is essential."

Breaking into a top-flight team can transform a young player's life as they are exposed to the pressures of a voracious 24/7 media and experience a level of financial wealth which they previously would have probably only dreamed of.

While sudden monetary gain itself might not destabilize a player, an inability to manage their finances in the long term might, suggests Dan Abrahams -- a sports psychologist specializing in football.

"I think its more having a capacity to deal with the wealth which comes to them," said Abrahams. "Over time, if you're not doing that, it can create pressure.

"The club needs to produce a culture of excellence," added Abrahams. "The five Cs -- culture; confidence, commitment, cohesion and caring.

"Many people would baulk at the last one. They might become multimillionaire footballers, but the only way they get there is if they have emotional and intellectual support."

After a career which shares some parallels with that of Balotelli, what advice would Pericard -- with the benefit of hindsight -- offer to the Italian?

"To seek help and accept help that will allow him to fulfil your potential and play until 35 and maybe be the best player in the world," he answered.

"With everything surrounding him, that is not going to happen. Accept the help that people are giving. Please accept it".

Over to you Mario.

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