Mario Balotelli: The exception that proves the rule?
Mario Balotelli might be going to Nice. The BBC website this morning reports that the troubled striker, who scored four goals in twenty eight appearances for Liverpool, is talking to the Ligue 1 club, but no deal has been reached.
Several stories like this have appeared on the transfer gossip pages in recent weeks, all with a common refrain. Sassuolo, Nantes and Besiktas are just a few of the clubs who have publicly passed on the opportunity to sign the man who stunned the world by scoring two goals to propel Italy into the final of the Euros, then celebrating by running to hug his mum. His agent, Mino Raiola, remains undeterred and has apparently offered him to Manchester United and Everton, but the links with these clubs strikes more as hope than expectation. Raiola pulled off the blag of a lifetime when he convinced Brendan Rodgers to sign Balotelli for £16m in 2014 and he’s unlikely to get away with it again.
There’s always been a degree of rebellion with Mario Balotelli. Even the great moments at Inter were tempered by rumours of his inability to follow instructions and unnecessary discipline issues, and while he thrived under the tutelage of Roberto Mancini, Jose Mourinho claims he has a novel’s worth of comedy anecdotes about Mario including one where the player failed to turn up to a meeting ‘because he was at Formula One qualifying’.
We enjoy him too. We loved it when he set fire to his bathroom before the Manchester derby. When he got into a punch up with Roberto Mancini during training. His parking fine totaliser. We too could write a book on his exploits back then, and annotate them with glorious on pitch moments. That assist for Sergio Aguero who romped on to score vs. QPR and win the league for the first time in 44 years being just one of many. When he was in form, he was totally worth the hassle.
Today? No manager is likely to sign him on his stats alone. In 14/15, twenty eight appearances across all competitions yielded four goals. In 13/14, forty one appearances produced eighteen. His career trajectory is less Sergio Ramos’ penalty and more Andrea Pirlo Panenka. He’s twenty six, the age his career should be peaking, and his talent and guile should be producing at least twenty-five a season in a settled side and ensuring his name one of the first on Italy’s team sheet. But while the silver tongued Raiola is capable of selling snow to Eskimos, it seems that the balance has tipped.
Of course, Balotelli isn’t the first to fall foul of an inability to conform. But his high profile forebears do not make for pleasant recall. We all laughed and cheered Gazza when he appeared in the papers in a pair of comedy breasts, the infamous dentist’s chair incident and reports of mayhem on England duty, but his failure to cope to the demands of professional football eventually caught up with him. And while the environment tacitly encouraged alcohol during Gazza’s heyday, placing him on the path to almost total destruction at the age of 49, the parallels between the two players are easy to see.
Perhaps we should be surprised this doesn’t happen more frequently. Hot housed since their early teens and paid in a week more than you and I earn in a year, if the media is to be believed, elite clubs should be struggling to fill their squads with competent players, especially in these days of hyper- distraction. And yet year after year they emerge, stick to their diet plans, follow the instructions given by their coaches and thrive in a high pressure environment riven with temptation and pockmarked by paps just waiting to catch them doing something click worthy.
Saying they get paid enough to cope with anything is sufficiently wilful and ignorant to dismiss you from engaging in the debate. It’s the football equivalent of telling a depressed person to ‘cheer up’. I’m not an apologist for twattery either — I frequently hate the game I love simply because of how its participants represent it — but when you stop and think about it, the fact that Ravel Morrison steering his career into wall is actually newsworthy is quite astonishing and indicative of a commitment and persistence players are very rarely credited for.
I’d love to see Mario turn it around. I’d like to see someone take a punt on him and him repay them by reclaiming the form he enjoyed for spells in the Premier League and Serie A. Personality is a big part of football and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy that footage of him failing to climb into a bib before City’s game vs. Dynamo Kiev. But it’s looking increasingly like Brendan Rodgers was the man holding the olive branch and Mario turning round slapping him in the face with it might yet prove to be the last meaningful move he makes in the game.
I guess we sometimes need to see them fall in order to appreciate the efforts of those who manage to stay on their feet.