In Milan, it’s p*ssing down. Not just drizzling, spitting or raining… p*ssing down. Speeding through treacherous conditions in a cab driven by someone who clearly doesn’t recognise the challenges of wet roads, I start to wonder what Puma’s production crew have in store for the brand’s latest signing: Mario Balotelli.
The venue for today’s shoot is AC Monza Brianza’s ground, a Lega Pro Seconda Divisione side (or the Fourth Division to you and me) on the outskirts of Milan. On arrival, it’s clear that AC Monza is not a moneyed club. Wind is whistling through the minimalist concrete stands as a film crew rolls case after case of kit out across a sodden pitch. Their mission is to capture a scene for a new advert starring Balotelli. The mission looks impossible, and it’s clear that getting Mario to do any kind of dynamic movement is out. The Milan derby is a few days away and the last thing either the player or Milan would want is him knacking himself in two inches of water.
Mario arrives, and it's almost by stealth. I’m standing chatting with Tom Oldham, our photographer for the day, and I see a tall Mario-esque figure wearing a full-length puffa jacket striding past the doorway to our room. Mario is in the building.
I follow him outside and watch as he appears to do little more than repeatedly, slowly turn to camera on the pitch. By this time, the sun has gone down, the rain is ongoing and the wind is a little bit colder. Video duties complete, on his return to the main stand where we’re waiting, it’s fair to say Mario is a little narked (he reveals as much to Matt Barker, our writer for the day), bemoaning the fact he’s likely to catch a cold.
AC Monza: the home of rain, rain and more rain
I’ll admit that at this point, I start to get a little concerned. Being familiar only with the tabloid persona created by the press during Balotelli’s stay at Manchester City, I was preparing myself for a strop to be thrown and the possibility of coming away empty-handed. It is, after all, not just a straightforward picture I want from Mario.
My plan is to get two shots of him. One where he is shouting and one where he is looking scared. The idea being that we put the two pictures together and it looks like Mario is shouting at himself. I’d seen a cover of US music magazine Billboard where they’d done something like this with Dave Grohl, once of Nirvana, now of Foo Fighters. As soon as I clocked that idea, I thought of Balotelli. Of all the top notch modern-day players strutting their stuff right now, he’s the one who seems to battle hardest with keeping his good side and bad side in balance.
Posso urlare in faccia a Mario Balotelli, non vedo l'ora!"
- David Hall
The snapper and I decide beforehand that, for the shouting shot, I will get in front of the camera with Mario and ask him to copy me. It often works better for those being snapped if you say, “Just do this” and then pull the face or pose you want from them. This is especially important working in the world of football. It’s rare to get ages with a player for photography and, for someone like Mario who claims to not like having his picture taken, you need to be brief and to the point. So, to re-cap, I am going to stand in front of Mario Balotelli and shout at him. Looking forward to it!
Grohl: the inspiration behind our cover
Done with his video work out on the water-logged pitch, Balotelli strides into the room for our shoot. He’s introduced to us all, politely introducing himself in return with a firm, brisk handshake and utterance of “Mario” in deep baritone. It’s always slightly bizarre when someone way more famous than you bothers to introduce themselves. Don’t get me wrong – it’s polite and perfectly acceptable behaviour – just a bit weird.
E' sempre strano quando un personaggio famoso viene lì e si presenta. So già come ti chiami!"
First impressions on meeting him are dominated by his presence and sheer size. Make no mistake – Mario is massive. He’s tall, broad and has the demeanour of someone who could end me at will. As you can see from the image that eventually wound up on the cover, he’s got hands like anvils. I bet Joleon Lescott looked forward to training at Man City a lot more once Mario had left.
In anticipation of not having much time to sell the cover concept to him, I had brought a stack of pictures from previous shoots we’d done with other stars of the game plus a rough of the cover idea. These images are laid all over a table as Mario is talked through the kind of photography we like to capture at FourFourTwo, and the slightly wacky idea for his cover. He seems a bit non-plussed and asks, “Why can’t I take a normal picture like this?” while pointing at straight, smiling portraits of Zinedine Zidane and Arsene Wenger. There is a pause before one of the team says, “Well, we’d like to try this idea today.” The slightly awkward moment passes and we’re into the shoot.
A look at our previous photography did the trick
Fears fall away quickly as he gamely copies me acting like a complete tit, trying to get him to make the biggest gob-plus-bug-eye combination possible. The rainy, chilly weather outside is forgotten and the photographer is clacking away like no one’s business. Mario continually cracks up and it’s clear he’s having a good time of it with FourFourTwo.
Shouting pictures done, I step out of the shot (and almost set light to myself thanks to one of the industrial heaters on set) to let Mario do the cowering, fingers-to-ears pictures. He tackles them like a professional model, hitting his mark easily.
The Billboard cover that inspired the FFT cover treatment – until Mario put up his dukes
The main shots seemingly in the can, the snapper suggests Mario raise his fists like a prizefighter. He shoots three frames of him with his fists up. With literally the last frame of the shoot, we land the incredible image that sits on our cover: Mario staring right down the barrel of the camera looking seven different types of mean and determined.
The entire shoot lasts no more than 10 minutes. We. Are. Done.
That’s so often the way. We approach shoots with a concept that gets overtaken by something the subject does on the day. It’s always essential to have a plan, of course. We’d never turn up and just hope to riff it, but we also wouldn’t expect a player to robot his way through a bunch of set poses, particularly if they’re not into the idea. They just end up looking uncomfortable and the pictures wouldn’t sell the mag.
Mario, done with our shoot, heads off to get a bit more photography done for his new sponsors and I’m left to reflect on FourFourTwo’s brief time with him. There’s no doubting his star quality and I have to keep reminding myself (and anyone else who’ll listen) that he’s only 23. If I was due to be playing in the centre of England’s defence at the World Cup, I’d be worrying about that first game in Manaus. It’s going to be rough in the rainforest.
The March 2014 issue of FourFourTwo, available now in print and in a specially-designed-for-iPad version, is brought to you by Mario Balotelli, Manuel Pellegrini, Ossie Ardiles, Luther Blissett, Phil Scolari, Jordi Alba, Daniel Sturridge, Alan Shearer, Xabi Alonso, David Ginola, Ivan Golac, Arnold Muhren, Brian Deane, Dante, Gary Hamson, Michael Owen, Ivan Rakitic, Jamie McAllister, Kevin Kilbane, Diego Forlan, Patrik Berger, Roberto Soldado, Michael Gray, Sami Hyypia, Micky Quinn, Nelinho, Tim Cahill, Jim Smith, Alan Brazil, Mark Bright, Hyde FC, Reading's kitman, the man who counted Pele's goals and a lipreader. Read all about it here.