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Balotelli walks on water for Sports Illustrated

'Most interesting man in the world' says US sporting bible

Balotelli walks on water for Sports Illustrated

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, August 21 - AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli walks on water on the cover of the latest edition of Sports Illustrated, which dubs the Italy star "the most interesting man in the world", The 23-year-old Ghanaian-Italian is photo-shopped in a Jesus-like pose, arms outstretched in a muscular pose on a swimming pool in Miami, where the US sporting bible interviewed him on holiday last month. It was an extremely rare SI cover story for a sport that lives in the shadow of American football, baseball and basketball. The accolade has only previously gone to its two greatest-ever players, Pelé and Diego Maradona. "He's Italian, he's African, friend to popes and prime ministers, subject of racist hate and wild adulation (and) the best young striker in football," the cover said. Balotelli, a former bad boy who has become a symbol of Italian soccer's fight against racism, last week had a private conversation with Pope Francis. AC Milan, which he joined from Manchester City in the Christmas transfer window, is owned by three-time Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. It is the second time this year Balotelli has been showcased by the US media. In April he made Time magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world. The piece by SI's senior writer Grant Wahl called Palermo-born and Bergamo-raised Balotelli "a symbol of an increasingly multiracial Europe". It added: "The lightning rod for attention also has the talent that's every bit as electric as his personality". Balotelli told Wehr he was a quiet man but aware of his responsibility to set an example for those who look up to him, especially among the younger generation: "I don't like to talk much, even when people speak bad about me," he said. "My objective is not that people follow me, but I'm happy that they do. It surprises me how much children like me, you know? If they look at me as an example, I have a big responsibility". Balotelli, the first black Italian to play in a major tournament, where his brace against Germany in the Euro 2013 semi-final pushed his star into the stratosphere, was asked about the monkey chants and occasional bananas that come his way. The question was timely after Italian soccer saw its latest, and perhaps highest-profile, case of racism, when black Juventus players were targeted by Lazio fans in Juve's 4-0 Super Cup win on Sunday. "You can't delete racism," Balotelli said. "It's like a cigarette. You can't stop smoking if you don't want to, and you can't stop racism if people don't want to. But I'll do everything I can to help". Milan start their Serie A campaign on Saturday at Hellas Verona, whose stadium has often rung to racist taunts. "I hope they won't say anything," Balotelli said. Given that only officials have power to stop games, if chants are repeated, Balotelli said his response to any provocation would be through his play. "I'll try to score with all my power, and when I score then I'll say something". Balotelli is a something of a reformed character after a string of headline-grabbing antics at Man City, where Wahl said he "joined Diego Maradona as global soccer's preeminent entries in the Tyson Zone". Commenting on his time in Manchester, Balotelli said "I went there as a boy, and I came back to Italy as a man". Balotelli also let SI readers into the secret of his flawless penalty record, saying he studied Maradona's technique as a boy. "It's mental," he says. "You have to be calm and wait for the goalkeeper to move. If the goalkeeper stays, he doesn't have time to go to one of the corners. If he moves, I see him before. It's kind of impossible for him". Barring a highly improbable string of upsets for the Azzurri, Balotelli's skills will be on show at next year's World Cup finals in Brazil. He told Wehr that lifting what would be Italy's fifth world champions' trophy was "more an objective than a dream". Balotelli added that he aims to overtake Lionel Messi as the world's best. "I'm working on it," he said.

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