Sunday, 1 April 2012

Balotelli. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma?

Or just a bit of a tool?

I know that the column inches generated by Mario's "antics" could line the world's biggest litter-tray and, in many cases, they do (not naming names). But is it all justified? Is Mario-mania just the type of circus that our media thrives upon year after year?

I'm not sure what it is about the industry I am desperate to be a part of, but they do seem to cherish mediocrity and faux-pas over footballing drama and expression. Of course, I am the bottom feeder at the foot of the food-chain, spinning and twisting the spun and twisted words of others, but I wish it was a bit simpler. I also acknowledge that this article - certain to be viewed by hundreds of millions of people around the world - will only add fuel to the fire, but I want to say my piece.

Signed in 2010 for a reported £23 million, Mario Balotelli has more than recouped his transfer fee in parking fees, player fines and firework safety classes...probably. His first season was relatively understated, mixing the odd goal with the occasional red card with the common misdemeanour (forgetting how to put on a bib, suffering an allergic reaction to grass and throwing a dart a youth team player...yeah, me neither). Nevertheless, by his standards, he had a quiet first twelve months in England.

This year, Balotelli has become more big, more bad and more, well, Balotelli.

Even in pre-season, Balotelli gave us all a glimpse of his incredibly potent ability to annoy. Playing against the LA Galaxy, the Italian passed up a simpler opportunity to score by attempting to backheel the ball into the goal. That's right, even a in a friendly, against a team from a nation notoriously apathetic towards football, he annoyed people. In a rare act of strength, manager Roberto Mancini took his striker off, a potential sign that he was getting to grips with his problematic, enigmatic, cinematic player. Since then, Mancini has resembled a care-worn mother trying to discipline her troublesome teenage son as he causes grief on the local estate. But Mancini has always picked talent over teamwork, and this looks unlikely to change anytime soon.

By mid-season, Balotelli was starting to show glimpses of his talent, scoring consistently and contributing to the team effectively. By October, he had cemented a place in Manchester City's first team for the game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Hours before the game, Balotelli set part of his house on fire after accidentally setting off fireworks in his kitchen. I'm not sure how one can accidentally set off fireworks, but I'll let it slide! In the game itself, Balotelli scored two goals and was - I say it reluctantly - brilliant. For the first time, the young striker was showing what the fuss was about and how almighty the trade-off between his behaviour and his talent had become. In the absence of want-away Carlos Tevez and the general mediocrity of Edin Dzeko, Balotelli was becoming an influential figure at the Etihad stadium.

However, since that October day, Mario's form has been as erratic as his off-field behaviour. His generosity has since been shown through his alleged giving of money in Manchester town centre, filling up cars at a local petrol station (it's been a while since anyone could do that) and his consistent disdain for local parking laws, accumulating over £10,000 in parking fines. This money has presumably helped Manchester city council pay for the damage done to his house and bib manufacturers around the world trying to design a "Mario-proof" product. Unfortunately for his team, this same generosity to others has been more consistent on the pitch, with disinterested displays and profligate finishing part of the reason behind City's recent mini-slump. This weekend, manager Mancini said that he "does not trust Balotelli". A staggering admission at the best of times, you would have thought such an admission would stir up some pride or at least emotion in Balotelli, but in the following game against Sunderland this weekend, he was astonishingly peripheral, putting in another half-hearted display which Mancini said he considered worthy of a substitution after just five minutes. Nevertheless, he slotted in a penalty late in the first-half. So he did do something, which is kind of annoying.

The second-half provided further insight into the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Balotelli. First, he argued with Alexander Kolarov over the taking of a free-kick. The first point to make here is that you should not argue with your team-mates, it rarely ends well, the fact it did on this occasion was a matter of good fortune. Second, why argue with Alexander Kolarov? The man is employed almost exclusively to take free-kicks, due to his general ineptitude at doing anything else. However, he again showed why he is persisted with, taking a second goal really well, a goal which started a City fight back for a point. In many ways, the game was an illustration of Balotelli's career. Shocking apathy mixed with undoubted skill, with a fiery character combined with an ice-cool approach to finishing. As well as this, the nature of the game was also a pretty good microcosm for Balotelli's influence on his side - enough to deliver the goods occasionally, but not enough to prevent seemingly inevitable catastrophe.

Why always him? Well, that should be a pretty simple question to answer. Because Balotelli demands it is always him. Whether stamping on random players heads to coolly slotting in penalties, the guy causes more head-scratching than a classroom full of nine-year olds with nits. For all his posturing and showboating, Balotelli remains - in my opinion - a pretty limited footballer. His record in Italy seems to prove this.

Starved of the attention he so craved by a media who concentrate on footballers rather than celebrities, Mario's temperament overrode his occasional brilliance. Eventually, even his own fans turned against him. The man who wishes to be the man of the moment was a mere outcast, forced to look elsewhere for what he desires.

I have to commend the Italian media here. They get many things wrong, but their attitude to an interesting yet irritating player meant that they continued their focus upon the real issues of football. The Italian media has always had a tendency to highlight what really matters and it is no surprise that their international record is significantly better than England's. Their analysis and insight into our beautiful game brings our priorities into the harsh light of day.

It is not Balotelli's fault in many ways. A bi-polar, troubled boy thrust into a world of money, power and stardom is always going to be a tough mix to control. Yet, those who can influence these talents exploit their positions to sell papers. Go figure.

As Mancini often - irritatingly - says of his own team, our country (and Balotelli) has arrived at a very difficult moment. What the hell does that mean?! Anyway...just like the aformentioned mother dealing with the difficult child, eventually some disciplining has to be carried out. Is it any coincidence that arguably the greatest manager of our generation - Jose Mourinho - did away with Balotelli after just a handful of games? If you want results, pick ingenuity, if you want sales, pick the enigma.

So, the verdict on Balotelli? There is no question that the man is capable of the type of moments that portray footballers differently to the way the average man sees the modern footballer. A box-office character who can enrich the lives of many, whilst sometimes torturing the fans of others. But at the same time, he is the representation of what our country is doing wrong with regards to football. As I said before, perhaps I am being hypocritcal by writing about him, but I think that if we stopped focussing on the "characters" in our game, the footballers would start to play.

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