By Mike Woitalla
Here are a few more glimpses into the childhoods of players starring at the 2012 European Championship:
‘Bad boy’ was fragile baby
Mario Balotelli (Italy). Life-threatening complications of his intestines required Mario to undergo a series of operations after he was born in Palermo, the capital of the Italian island of Sicily, in 1990.
His parents, Thomas and Rose Barwuah, were immigrants from Ghana who struggled to make ends meet. After moving to the northern Italian city of Brescia with their three children, living in a cramped studio apartment, the Barwuahs sought social-service aid and were advised to put 3-year-old Mario into foster care. He was raised by Francesco and Silvia Balotelli, a white middle-class couple who had two sons, Corrado and Giovanni, and a daughter, Cristina.
Soon after moving in with the Balotellis, Mario ran and slid down the corridor and breaking several vases. "I'd be in the bathroom drying my hair when he'd appear at the door, turn the light off and run away," Cristina said. "It was the attention he wanted."
His passion for soccer – the young Mario insisted on kicking the ball around even in pouring rain – led to him joining a team of older players when he was 5. As is still the case, Balotelli often got into trouble, like when he was suspended from a youth team for mooning a jeep full of Italian soldiers from the team bus. Once when Silvia grounded him, he sneaked out and walked 50 minutes to practice.
Meanwhile, Balotelli’s skills on the field were undeniable. At age 11 he joined AC Lumezzane and at age 15 the club wanted him to play for its Serie C (third division) team, although 16 was the minimum age to play pro ball.
“I was watching the juniors train and saw Mario on the field -- after just five minutes I knew I had to have him in the first squad,” said Coach Walter Salvioni. “He was incredible. His touch was fantastic.
“I went to the junior coach and said, ‘I’m taking that boy for the first team.’ I didn’t know he was only 15 until the coach said, 'You can’t, he’s too young.’”
The league ruled that it would make an exception for Balotelli if the club obtained a doctor’s certificate declaring him fit to play with men. That it did within a day and he made his pro debut five months before his 16th birthday.
After an unsuccessful tryout with Barcelona, Balotelli joined Inter Milan at age 16 and scored his first Serie A goal at age 17. He won three league titles and the Champions League with Inter before moving to Manchester City, last season’s EPL winner, in 2010.
Ballboy 'bribe' leads to Bayern
Philipp Lahm (Germany). The 28-year-old captain is one of six players in the German squad who played in the youth program of Bayern Munich, for which Lahm also wears the captain’s band.
But it took some convincing to get the 11-year-old to leave the friends he played with in the Munich suburb of Gern.
“He was always with a soccer ball,” said his mother, Daniela. “In the house, in the yard.”
First Philipp was invited to a tryout at 1860 Munich, where he noticed the fence surrounding the field was riddled with holes. “No, I don’t want to play here,” he recalled in his autobiography.
While courted by a Bayern Munich scout, he insisted he had no intention of leaving his pals. But the Bayern man promised he’d be a ballboy at the Olympic Stadium for a Bundesliga game if he tried out -- an offer he couldn't refuse.
He remained skeptical until arriving at Bayern and an older player took him under his wings, which convinced Lahm he could make new friends. When Bayern offered him a spot, he really had to contemplate leaving FT Gern -- the club down the street from his home where his grandfather, father and uncles played, and where his mother served as a team manager.
“One of the important things about my childhood was I could be a kid,” Lahm said, “but at the same time be taken serious. My sister and I were consulted when it came to making holiday and free-time plans. When I was 11 it was about going to FC Bayern, and my parents did not pressure me in either direction. They gave me the feeling that they would support me no matter what."
With a November birthday in a youth system with a Jan. 1 cutoff, Lahm was already among the youngest in his age group. Bayern’s youth teams all play up one year, which meant Lahm faced much older and bigger players. (At 5-foot-7, he’s still among the smallest.) And though his coaches protected him when necessary, subbing him out if he was getting hacked too much, he excelled at every level.
Lahm’s favorite subject in school was math, and he figured that if he didn’t make it on the field, who could be a banker like his grandfather and uncle. But pro soccer it would be.
He went from central midfield, to winger before settling at outside back, which he can play on either side. At age 19 he won his first of four Bundesliga titles and at 20 he debuted for Germany.
Further reading -- Euro 2012 Stars: When they were children:
Nani & David Silva
Cristiano Ronaldo & Welbeck
Schweinsteiger, Iniesta & Shevchenko