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Super Mario shows off new maturity

FOX Soccer Daily: Will Mario Balotelli ever get rid of his wild antics?
FOX Soccer Daily: Will Mario Balotelli ever get rid of his wild antics?
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Dermot Corrigan

Dermot Corrigan is a freelance Irish sportswriter who lives in Madrid and writes about soccer for several publications, including FOXSoccer.com, Sport 360°, When Saturday Comes and Iberosphere. Contact him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan.

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BARCELONA

RENAISSANCE MAN

From comic to consummate pro, will Balotelli become Milan's savior?

Mario Balotelli looked straight at his questioner, and answered quickly before the public relations minder could intervene.

“Yeah it is good,” Balotelli said. “I like that.”

Balotelli was in Barcelona being shown off as Puma’s big new signing, having transferred across from previous kit supplier Nike during the winter transfer window. So the questions were supposed to be about the his new boot’s ultra-light design, or florescent orange coloring, but the AC Milan striker was instead being asked what he thought of Clarence Seedorf being appointed this week as his new boss -- and the highest-profile black manager in Serie A history.

Balotelli was happy to answer. “It was good. I am really happy he came. He is a good person and he was a fantastic player. He knows football," said the former Manchester City and Internazionale forward about the three time Champions League winner. "When you have someone who has won so much, maybe you listen more.”

That immediately turned the conversation to his former Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri, less successful than Seedorf during his playing days, and who was sacked last weekend with the team 11th, 30 points behind leaders Juventus.

“When a team does not play well and things do not go in a good way, it is normal that the manager is sacked,” Balotelli said directly. “It happens in every team, so this time it happened to him. Allegri did very well with Milan. But now we have to think about Seedorf, and to start again.”

Starting again is something that the Italian international -- often in the headlines for off-field pranks and training-ground rows with manager Roberto Mancini during his time with Manchester City -- appears to be keen on.

CROWDED SPACE

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When asked for his views on Cristiano Ronaldo winning the 2013 Ballon d’Or this week, he said the Real Madrid player deserved it not for his talent or goals -- but for his hard work. “I think Ronaldo deserved it this year and I am happy for him,” he said. “I know that he works a lot and he has deserved it for a long time. Of course [the Ballon d’Or] is a big ambition for me too.”

To reach those heights, the 23-year-old said he too was currently knuckling down and concentrating on his profession.

“Because I love football,” he said. “Football is not only playing on Sunday, but preparing yourself during the week for Sunday. You can have girls if you want, you can go to clubs and drink and do silly things, or go to sleep late, I used to do this when I was 15 or 16. But after I stopped. And it is okay, because either you want to be a footballer or you just want to be a normal guy.”

Balotelli had combined those two roles earlier at Friday's promotional event, taking part in a set of challenges against Cesc Fabregas and Marco Reus, with Thierry Henry as MC. Balotelli -- as predicted by Henry -- was the clear winner, using his new boots to strike the ball more powerfully and accurately than the bashful looking Fabregas and clearly competitive Reus.

“Of course I enjoyed today -- because I won,” Super-Mario told reporters with a smile. “On the pitch they are your opponent, but off the pitch everyone is friends. But really, as long as there is a ball between my feet I am happy, with whoever I can play with. If I can give a bit of a smile to someone I am happy to do it.”

Puma have made a big deal of their new capture, first providing boots covered in newspaper headlines for a game in December to provoke speculation over who his new sponsor might be, then answering the question with ‘Why always Puma?’ written in big pink letters on each foot in his next match.

Asked if he might have been involved in thinking up such PR moves -- which trade off his bad-boy image -- Balotelli was honest.

“No I was not,” he said. “They just made it and asked me if it was okay. I said of course -- it is very good. This is a different design compared to what I used before. I have to get used to it a little bit. As long as they are light it is okay. And not purple. I do not wear purple.”

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The reporters present all broke into their expected smiles -- but before the allotted time had elapsed one more question about life as Italy’s most prominent black footballer was squeezed in. This is especially relevant this weekend as Seedorf’s first game in charge of Milan will be at home to Hellas Verona, whose supporters have a reputation for extreme right-wing politics and ugly behavior, and who jeered Balotelli during the team’s first meeting of the season in August.

The Azzurri striker -- who has previously said he would walk off the pitch should he face racist chanting -- said he had now decided just to ignore any abuse from his countrymen and get on with his job. "It is not a big deal,” he said. “We are in the pitch, they are up there. We have to think about the game -- that is it.”

Just the game. No distractions. No diversions. A ball at his feet. This is 2014's Mario Balotelli.

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