[Photos by Nathan Thornburgh/Roads & Kingdoms]

The Ballarò neighborhood of Palermo is where Mario Barwuah Balotelli—Super Mario, the football striker and new Italian icon—was born. His parents, Ghanian immigrants who moved to Brescia in the north of Italy when he was still an infant, eventually gave Mario up for adoption, and he was raised in Lombardy by the white Italian Balotelli family.

But Balotelli hasn’t forgotten his roots here in Ballarò. Gyimah Boateng, 15, is a football aspirant from Ballarò and fellow Ghanian immigrant (though Balotelli was born in Palermo, Italian law considered him an immigrant until he applied for citizenship at age 18). Boateng plays for the top youth academy team in Palermo, and remembers fondly the time last year when Super Mario invited all the Ghanians in the neighborhood to spend the day hanging out with him on a nearby beach. It’s the kind of largesse that Gyimah would like to be able to show someday, not least because it would mean that he had successfully escaped from the hard life of Ballarò, where the adults in his community work as hired muscle for the fruit markets of Palermo, earning as little as one Euro an hour, and dream of being back home in Ghana.

For now, though, Gyimah works on his game. On a recent Friday in Palermo, he and a group of other kids from the neighborhood—all Bangladeshis except for him—climbed the fence of a closed schoolyard and played football for hours. Never mind the jeans or the flipflops or the lack of a goal-net or proper ball. This is hoop dreams, Sicily edition.