Welcome to Planet Mario: A taste of life in Balotelli's world
FourFourTwo Editor David Hall went to Milan and found himself in the middle of Mario-mania...
Walking up to the San Siro was a great moment for me. Several things came to pass to make that moment special. The most obvious thing was the occasion: Ã¢ÂÂAC Milan vs BarcelonaÃ¢ÂÂ is a hat-trick of words that would excite even the most jaded football fan (not that I consider myself to be jaded, by the way). The fact this was an evening kick-off right in the middle of a city that had gone completely mental for, and found new hope in, their new signing Mario Balotelli, brought even more expectation to the evening.
The stadium was a sell-out Ã¢ÂÂ a rare occurrence these days Ã¢ÂÂ and, I must confess, it was my first visit to this top three contender in the football-stadiums-you-must-visit-before-you-die list. There was an odd moment when a big piece of official branding outside the stadium proclaimed this to be the Ã¢ÂÂROAD TO WEMBLEYÃ¢ÂÂÃ¢ÂÂ¦ in these supremely sexy surroundings, it felt weirdly unglamorous to see those words.
AC Milan and Barcelona hope to emulate Bradford City
In a moment of crappy timing that often happens to us in the world of monthly magazines, I was visiting Milan literally hours after we had sent the final pages of our April issue Ã¢ÂÂ out now digitally and in print Ã¢ÂÂ to press. That will be the April issue with Mario Balotelli on the cover. Bizarrely, I found myself no more than three yards from the man himself as he sauntered around the corporate boxes with (stunning) girlfriend, Fanny, in tow.
Being in the middle of Mario mania was a real eye-opener. Seeing him move amongst the people occupying the posher areas of the San Siro, I got a very small insight into what his life is like. He would walk somewhere, stop and then gradually more and more people would gravitate towards his position, until he would decide it was getting a bit much and then move on. I imagined a voice in MarioÃ¢ÂÂs head saying, Ã¢ÂÂMario will now stand here and waitÃ¢ÂÂ¦ Mario will now stand here and waitÃ¢ÂÂ¦ Mario will now stand here and waitÃ¢ÂÂ¦Ã¢ÂÂ
Mario and Fanny take in the big match atmosphere
What that fleeting glimpse of Mario mania confirmed for me was the manÃ¢ÂÂs undoubted star quality. He exuded confidence, everyone in his presence was excited to see him and his stand-and-wait routine caused a buzz wherever he went.
During his time in the UK, the British press, on the whole, enjoyed making him look like a bit of a wally, and I include FourFourTwo in that. In our defence, what I think we never really lost sight of was the fact that he is a really good player. I was gutted when I twigged he would be cup-tied for this game against Barcelona. It was destined to be an electric atmosphere, but it would have been superb had Balotelli played *shakes fist in the general direction of Manchester*.
My invite to the game came from the ultra hip and happening fashionistas at Dolce & Gabbana. The high-end clobber kings have a good thing going with AC Milan where they dress all the players for official club business. In return, D&G enjoy a pretty spectacular corporate standing area almost on the pitch at a corner flag known as Ã¢ÂÂThe Gold ClubÃ¢ÂÂ. Amusingly, this game took place right smack bang in the middle of Milan Fashion Week, so I was sadly not only the worst-dressed person in the D&G area but also comfortably the ugliest. Hey-ho. At least there was football to watch.
Our man's view of the pitch (and the backs of the beautiful people's heads)
The game unfolded in exhilarating style. BarcelonaÃ¢ÂÂs tiki-taka didnÃ¢ÂÂt really show any cutting edge but Milan, driven by Kevin Prince Boateng, who appeared so pumped I had him down for a red card at some point, looked ready to pounce. Every time Milan got possession there was an expectant roar and I actually started to feel a bit sorry for Stephan El Shaarawy. He was getting hit with some momentous crossfield passes, a few of which were landing right in front of where I was standing, and the noise volume went up every time he got it under control. Pressure? Just a bit.
As the game went on, the D&G standing area became busier and IÃ¢ÂÂm pretty sure my aforementioned ugliness and clear lack of any discernible sartorial skill, meant that I was gradually edged further and further back. That, or IÃ¢ÂÂm just not very good at jostling with elegant Italians.
When the referee blew for half-time, there was a palpable feeling of relief but also of, Ã¢ÂÂHang on a minute here, ladsÃ¢ÂÂ¦ we could get something out of thisÃ¢ÂÂ. ThatÃ¢ÂÂs a loose translation of the mutterings I heard. Barcelona certainly looked off the pace, particularly at the back and the very faintest whiff of Catalan blood was in the air.
Mario Balotelli: Once again the centre of attention
Mario popped into the D&G area again. StoodÃ¢ÂÂ¦ waitedÃ¢ÂÂ¦ stoodÃ¢ÂÂ¦ waited and then went back to the box next door, which I only discovered later contained Robinho too. What a night out that would be, eh?
The second-half was brilliant. Milan were unrelenting and when The Prince put them 1-0 up, the flipping roof came off. People IÃ¢ÂÂd been craning to see round in the D&G box, turned to me and, IÃ¢ÂÂm pretty sure, would have hugged me had the ugliness and poor clothing not prevented them. And when Sulley Muntari finished off a brilliant move for the second, the whole place exploded with a Ã¢ÂÂcan you believe this is actually bloody well happening?!Ã¢ÂÂ kind of vibe. Incredible.
I looked over to the box next door and I could just see the top of BalotelliÃ¢ÂÂs grey baseball cap bouncing around as he celebrated in a group hug with his entourage.
Muntari and Boateng celebrate victory with some robotic dancing (possibly)
At the final whistle, I was whisked away through a car park under the stadium which was filled with, what I can only guess were, the playersÃ¢ÂÂ cars, past Novak Djokovic who was posing for pics with fans, to a minibus all set to take a few of us back to various hotels in the city. We pulled away and started our inch-by-inch crawl through the huge departing crowd and general melee. I started to exchange texts with a couple of FourFourTwoers, mentioning seeing Balo and what an amazing night it had been.
Suddenly, I was conscious of a bit of ruckus kicking off behind our mini bus. I looked over my right shoulder and saw a big pack of people running and riding mopeds across the road. I slid over to the other side of the bus to see what they were running after. There right underneath my window was a bright red Ferrari and Fanny sitting in the passenger seat.
This was too good. Rather than give it an hour or so, Balotelli had decided to drive his highly conspicuous motor right into the middle of sell-out match traffic. ThatÃ¢ÂÂs Mario. HeÃ¢ÂÂs box office and he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt really much care who knows it. Milan loves him for it.