Mario Balotelli’s Italian Homecoming

Brescia, as a city, seemed to feel the connection, too. It returned Balotelli’s affection. In the time he had been away, Brescia had changed. He remembers countless instances from his youth of feeling like he stood out: the only black player not just on a team, but the whole field. He once told a teacher that he was trying to “wash the color” off his skin; he asked if his “heart was black, too.”

Now, according to Stefano Brasetti, Balotelli’s personal trainer, the city is “proudly multicultural.” Some 19 percent of its inhabitants are extracomunitari, he said — people who have come from outside the European Union, drawn by the wealth and the work available in Lombardy, one of Italy’s richest regions. The province is now home to 156,000 immigrants, and Brescia itself has large communities from Pakistan, India, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria.

Balotelli returned, then, not only to a city that had always been happy to call him “one of our own,” as one staff member at the Oratorio said, but one that had grown comfortable in its polychrome skin. Now, every team, every field, has black players. He could, at last, feel as if he belonged.

During the summer, as he waited to see what his future held, Balotelli worked out at Brasetti’s gym. Occasionally, to improve his fitness, he would go for runs in the city’s parks with his brother, Enock Barwuah. He was stopped countless times and invited to join local pickup games. He never refused.

“For kids, especially, he is a star,” Brasetti said. “Whenever they come up to him, he dedicates himself to them completely.”