Mario Balotelli lives to defy expectations and we're all the better for it

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Mario Balotelli starred on another big stage as he scored a dramatic go-ahead goal for Liverpool in its long-awaited return to the Champions League. As he emphatically fist pumped before a delirious Anfield crowd, the masses once again had to ask why it's always him.

The Italian enigma carries an anticipatory aura wherever he goes, and it's been especially prevalent during his short spell at Liverpool. As was the case with the club's previous fire-starter, Luis Suarez, people can't help but watch Balotelli's every move to see what ridiculous thing he'll pull off next. To meet that demand, the media follows his life as if it's a spectator sport, which is an intense pressure that's been placed upon his shoulders since a young age.

However, "Super Mario" looks more like a young man trying to enjoy himself than a prodigy crumpling under pressure. His desire for fun is a reflection of his own untainted personality, incredibly unaffected by the will of an overreaching public.

That his unwillingness to normalize himself sometimes gets him into real trouble shouldn't overshadow how important it is that he remains an eccentric individual. The human element of sports is vital to its intrigue, and therefore it's necessary to have complex, unpredictable players like Balotelli around.

Criticisms of Balotelli's personality are at least backed by things he's done, whereas gripes about his commitment to his job are baseless. He shows his passion for football on a regular basis, yet so many people fail to recognize it -- oftentimes pointing to the fact that he doesn't celebrate his goals. The reason for that is, as he put it in an interview back in 2010, "I think a striker has to score. That's why I don't smile when I score. Because I have to do [it]. I have to score. It's my job. But I am happy."

He sounds like the ultimate professional when he says that and his words are a far cry from the commonly accepted image of him as a thoughtless player who doesn't care about what he does. Take one look at that fist pump after his first goal for Liverpool -- a moment when his love for the game transcends his desire to conceal his inner emotions – and his passion becomes clear.

It's easy to define Mario Balotelli by what he does. He's a man who lights fireworks in bathrooms and scores spectacular goals. But what drives those actions and ultimately makes him so fun to watch is that he's a player who is unafraid to be himself. He's not the molded athlete that we're used to, and he constantly defies what is expected of him.

Beneath the bulging muscles and lack of celebration, and despite hundreds of attempts to tarnish his image, Balotelli remains a positive guy.

He said in that same 2010 interview, "I'm always happy. Even when I don't smile I'm happy."

Dan Bernstein is a freshman at the University of Maryland. He is romantic about the Oakland Coliseum (where he grew up) and Anfield (where he's never even been). Follow him on Twitter: @danbernsteinUMD
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