Another town, another team, yet another fresh start for Mario Balotelli. Less than a week after completing a £16m move from Milan, the Italy striker is expected to make his Liverpool debut on Sunday lunchtime at White Hart Lane. The Reds will be his fourth club in the space of five years.

Balotelli believes he has found an environment where he can thrive. He told reporters on Monday that he was happy to be back in England, that football in this country was “beautiful”, and that it had been a mistake for him ever to go back to Serie A. But in Italy, the press had a different take. They recalled how the player had returned enthusiastically to his home country just 19 months earlier, bemoaning Manchester’s weather and cuisine.

Milan had seemed like the perfect home for Balotelli at the time. He would be representing the club he supported as a boy, and living close to his friends and family in nearby Brescia. And yet, the honeymoon proved to be short-lived. Despite scoring 26 times in 43 league games, Balotelli cut an unhappy and isolated figure.

He wept on the bench during a defeat to Napoli in February, distraught at his failure to score a goal to dedicate to his daughter Pia – whose paternity he had just acknowledged following a DNA test. Two months later, Balotelli lost his cool during a post-match interview with Italy’s Sky Sport 24, telling the former Juventus midfielder Giancarlo Marocchi: “In my opinion, you don’t understand football.”

So when news broke of the player’s move to Liverpool last week, it was met with resignation on the peninsula, rather than any great surprise. More than one commentator wondered whether the player was destined to spend his entire career moving on from one place to another, always feeling dissatisfied. “He is condemned to chase a rainbow that he will never reach,” wrote Luigi Garlando in Gazzetta dello Sport. “He is Ulysses without Ithaca.”

But what else could the world expect of Balotelli, who grew up without the kind of cultural reference points that most of us take for granted?

Born in Palermo, Sicily to Ghanaian immigrants, Thomas and Rose Barwuah, in the summer of 1990, Balotelli was a sickly child whose intestinal problems made it hard for his biological parents to fully look after his needs. Placed in foster care with Francesco and Silvia Balotelli, a white couple from the affluent town of Concesio, just north of Brescia, he enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, and yet also one that led to endlessly challenging questions about the nature of his identity.

Although bureaucratic obstacles prevented the Balotellis from ever adopting Mario formally, they raised him as their own son, alongside their three biological children Giovanni, Corrado and Cristina. Each of them was treated him as part of the family, and Mario viewed them the same way. But in the overwhelmingly white environment of small-town northern Italy, Mario was also keenly aware that he did not look the same as his siblings or his peers at school.

Stories have been written claiming that Balotelli grew obsessed with the colour of his skin, either shading it in pink with pens or scrubbing his hands with boiling water in order to get them clean. In the book Io Vi Maledico (I Curse You), the Italian journalist Concita De Gregorio quotes one of the player’s former teachers, Tiziana Gatti, as saying that the player had an “evident identity problem” growing up.

“He asked me more than once if his heart, inside his chest, was also black,” Gatti adds in the book. “I explained that it wasn’t, but a few days later he asked me again.”

Balotelli’s relationship with his biological parents was complicated. The Barwuahs had moved to Brescia before agreeing to have him fostered, but despite living nearby they played only a peripheral role in his life. They have blamed the Balotelli family for this state of affairs, claiming that they were denied access to Mario – although that version of events has since been contested by the player.

Regardless of who is telling the truth, the situation can only have been unsettling for a young boy caught between two very different realities. Gatti claims that Balotelli would return from these brief visits with his biological family asking whether they would make him go back to live in Africa.

Football was an outlet, but sadly not an escape. Obsessed with the sport from a young age, Balotelli’s natural talent soon marked him apart in ways that were not always desirable. “His ability, combined with the colour of his skin, provoked a certain amount of jealousy and antipathy,” said the player’s first coach, Giovanni Valenti. “I think growing up, Balotelli went through a period when he felt he was not accepted, because he was black.”

Interactions with the opposite sex might have reinforced that idea. In his biography of Balotelli, Why Always Me, Frank Worrall quotes the player as saying: “Like all boys of a certain age, I was interested in girls and getting attention. But it was like I was transparent [invisible]. I’m no George Clooney but I couldn’t explain why I was ignored. My friends in Italy explained. They told me people don’t like blacks.”

On the pitch, Balotelli responded by refusing to celebrate his goals, instead walking quietly back to the halfway line. Valenti puts that behaviour down to the player’s desire not to draw any more attention to himself than he had already done simply by virtue of the colour of his skin.

Some things, though, you simply cannot hide from. For Balotelli, the ugly side of Italian football support was among them. He was racially abused during his first professional game, at the age of 15. He had required special dispensation just to take part, with directors at Lumezzane lodging a request to the Italian Football Federation to make the striker eligible to play for the senior team.

Entering his team’s match against Padova in Serie C1 – the third tier of Italian football – as a substitute, Balotelli immediately proceeded to nutmeg an opponent. He soon found himself on the wrong end of a brutal foul in retribution. But the striker sprung to his feet and continued. A section of the 3,643 strong crowd at the Stadio Euganeo responded by making monkey noises toward him at the end of the game. In a sense, Balotelli has already delivered the most eloquent message that he can to such people, going on to become one of his country’s foremost players. But even then, he has been made to feel like an outsider along the way.

Despite living his entire life in Italy, Balotelli was prevented by archaic legislation from claiming full citizenship until after he had turned 18. As a result, he was also prevented from representing any of the national youth teams until after that date. Even once he had finally overcome all the legislative hurdles and made his debut for the Azzurri, Balotelli was informed more than once by hostile crowds that “there are no black Italians”.

All of these stories provide some insight into the way that Balotelli carries himself today. If he behaves like an outsider, detached from his colleagues on and off the pitch, perhaps it is because that is how he has had to live his whole life – knowing that he is just a little different to everybody else. It might also explain why, at 24, he is still having such a hard time finding a place that he is happy to call home.

“Soon [Balotelli] will play alongside Steven Gerrard, a banner player who has been planted in the same place for 30 years: the heart of Liverpool,” Garlando continued in Gazzetta dello Sport.

“The mythical Kop will sing ‘You’ll never walk alone’ and yet Mario, incapable of laying down roots, further away still from his daughter and parents, will walk alone.”

That is one take on the situation. Another would be to say that Balotelli simply has not found the right place, the right club, the right manager to shake him out of established patterns of behaviour. Could Liverpool turn out to be the home he has been seeking?