Mario Balotelli is a footballer you’re not allowed to like. Balotelli is arrogant, petulant, disrespectful and immature. Mario’s talent is being wasted as he allows himself to burn out in a ball of anger and resentment. Every time he steps on the pitch (or near a training bib) he is far more likely to trouble his manager and the referee, than the opposition keeper. Off the pitch beware too; Balotelli might throw a dart at you.
Pundits, commentators and journalists remind us of these points on an all too regular basis. Balotelli is condemned before he walks onto the pitch now. It took less than two minutes into both the FA Cup Semi Final & Final for the commentators to intimate that Balotelli was be likely to explode any second. These aren’t isolated cases, just the highest profile. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. Is it any wonder that he gets frustrated?
It’s often overlooked that he’s still only 20 years old and that describing his formative years as tough would be an understatement. Considering the intestinal illness he suffered as a toddler that nearly ended his life, it’s incredible to see what an impressive physical specimen he has developed into. Of course the stresses haven’t just been physical. Racial abuse throughout his life has obviously played a massive part in the way his often spiky personality has developed. The taunts he’s suffered on his appearances for the national team particularly sting a young man who has always declared his passion for Italy and representing the Azzuri. Balotelli’s family relations have been famously strained through his short life. Add these factors to his fantastic talent and immense sudden wealth at such a tender age and it’s easy to see how things can get out of hand.
None of this should be seen as exclusive to Balotelli; many have the same or worse problems and deal with them better. It’s equally true however that many from much more privileged backgrounds turn out much worse than Balotelli. Nor should any of the aforementioned factors be seen as an excuse or justification for actions such as chucking darts at youth players, however the key is how these events and also his mental state are dealt with. As his employers, Manchester City have a duty of care towards Balotelli and it is crucial that they are doing all they can to counsel and support him. That’s not to suggest they aren’t, they have a lot of money invested in him and it would be plain negligent on a business level, let alone a human one not to. Roberto Mancini does appear to be the right manager to make a man of Mario. Mancini has staked a lot on his protégé and for such a pragmatic coach as him it would appear that he must be convinced that Balotelli can deliver. Mancini as a player was known to give his coaches a headache, perhaps not to the same magnitude, but maybe he can empathise and connect with Balotelli. Jose Mourinho famously could not, claiming that Mario ‘wasn’t able to use his brain’.
Super Mario was never likely to be a Mourinho favourite anyhow. In much the same way that Cristiano Ronaldo has at times struggled to adapt to a more ‘team centred’ game under his countryman, Balotelli likes to be ‘The Man’ on the pitch. On his day it’s hard to argue that he shouldn’t be the focus of attention. Physically dominant and a gifted technique make him as unplayable as the worlds very best. Defenders are mesmerised by his dribbling and goalkeepers often left standing by his explosive shooting. To his credit, and Mancini’s, he has improved his work rate too, best displayed in those two FA Cup games that will stick in the memory of City fans. Balotelli really seemed to have understood the importance of the Semi against City’s greatest rivals. Typically his performance was overlooked by many because of his celebrations afterwards. Although a great number must have felt that there is no more fitting victim of a ‘merking’ than Rio Ferdinand. Against Stoke he displayed great unselfishness; yet again it was the post-game that attracted attention. Balotelli wasn’t the only City player to swear on live TV but received the most coverage, although it should be unsurprising that Micah Richards dropped the F-bomb. That Balotelli gave a brutally honest assessment of his own season should be seen as a sign of some maturity even if his choice of language was off. Of course he must strive for consistency and to control his temper. Collecting almost as many cards as goals isn’t going to lead him to the very top. It could well be that referees are guilty of pre-judging him also, although he can be accused of making it easy for them.
One of the specialities of the much maligned British media is their ability to knock those with talent. Balotelli’s antics have meant that he has replaced Joey Barton as the most pre-judged man in British football. Barton must be relieved. Balotelli should actually look to Joey for some measure of inspiration. The Newcastle midfielder has also done some stupid and despicable things down the years, serving his punishment every time. Now Barton remains outspoken but has clearly finally grown up, allowing him to express his ability on the pitch and his forthright views off it. Mario’s latest ‘crime’ was to wear a t-shirt that had some guns, knives and blood on it. Supposedly he is glorifying violence by doing so. If a kid picks up a knife after seeing Balotelli in that, it’s safe to say they already have some major problems. Millions of kids across the world see bloody lips in movies like ‘Twilight’ yet they don’t hit the streets on a rampage. This isn’t meant to demean or belittle gang violence or knife and gun crime; they are clearly serious and widespread issues. Laying them at the door however, of a 20 year old footballer is somewhat wide of the mark and a tad hysterical.
Balotelli is an exciting and explosive talent. His career can still go either way. The evident masses of potential could still go to waste and critics will queue up to say ‘I told you so’. For his own sake let’s hope he can fulfil that potential and that with help and guidance calm himself on and off the pitch to become a truly great player.