Why Always Mario?

The cover of TIME’s international edition this week is the profile I did with Catherine Mayer on the Italian football player Mario Balotelli.

This game won’t turn out well for Mario Balotelli, but Manchester City’s star striker is always watchable. A Mohawk adds a bristling inch to his strapping frame, and even by the balletic, fast-paced standards of top-tier football, he moves with a mesmeric grace, twisting past defenders without losing speed. Sometimes he attracts attention for the wrong reasons too. Eighteen and a half minutes into the Oct. 20 match with West Bromwich Albion, his tackle on an opponent is deemed a foul, and the referee brandishes a yellow card. A further infringement risks earning a red card, banishing Balotelli and leaving City a man short. He knows he ought to accept the decision as surely as everyone watching knows he will not. And soon enough he is arguing with the referee, returning at the halftime whistle to remonstrate with him again until a teammate roughly pushes the player away.

Whether on the pitch or in private, Balotelli seems to generate energy rather than burn it. Dramas flare around him; passions ignite. When he isn’t playing, he fidgets. But if called to take a penalty, at the very peak of pressure, he turns icily calm. Since signing with the English Premier League club in 2010, “Super Mario” hasn’t missed a spot kick at the goal. (Lionel Messi, Barcelona’s most prolific scorer and winner of this year’s European Golden Boot award for racking up the most goals in the season, had a success rate from penalties of 82%.) “It’s just like a game of mind, me and the goalkeeper,” says Balotelli of his perfect penalty record. “Me, I know how to control my mind.” The secret lies in his distinctive stuttering run-up to the ball, so different from his usual fluidity. He waits for the goalkeeper to guess at the likely trajectory of his shot and in that fraction of a second aims into the opposite corner of the net. “When the goalkeeper moves before me, it means that in this game of mind he lost,” he says.

Read the rest.