In the buildup to his side's World Cup qualifier against Italy on Tuesday, Denmark manager Morten Olsen was full of praise for striker Mario Balotelli.
Olsen said of the striker whose two goals fired the Azzurri past Germany and into the final of Euro 2012 last summer (via ESPN FC):
"…he's a great talent and I fear him. I've never seen Balotelli train with Italy or with Manchester City but I really respect him. He's strong in front of goal and he can decide the outcome of a game with a goal or with a pass. He's fantastic."
High praise indeed, and why not? After all, Balotelli was the joint-top scorer in Poland and Ukraine—though Fernando Torres took the Golden Boot courtesy of his assist in the final.
And yet a prominent member of the hierarchy at his own club spoke out against him recently. Brian Marwood, the club's sporting director, told the Sunday Mirror:
“I think that it’s important to make a good example. I think – and we all know who we are talking about – that you will get people within the system who do not show the right values and the right behaviour.
“In the main, we have a fantastic group of players here. I look at [Pablo] Zabaleta, I look at [Vincent] Kompany, I look at Joe Hart, Gareth Barry and Joleon Lescott.
“I think we have a lot of players who can behave in the right way. You just have to make sure that they are the role models.”
Were it almost any other player, such comments would come as a real surprise, and Marwood himself would come in for real criticism for publicly laying into one of his own club's players.
But, because it is Balotelli, this kind of reaction is par for the course.
We all know the stories. Here are just a few which the 22-year-old has been reported to have done since joining City in 2010—with varying degrees of truth:
- Set his house ablaze by letting fireworks off in his bathroom
- Explained to police who stopped him in his car that he was carrying thousands of pounds worth of cash on his person by saying "because I am rich"
- Sent out on an errand for cleaning products by his mother only to return with a delivery van containing a giant trampoline, Scalextric set, a table tennis set and two Vespa scooters
- Drove into a women's prison in his hometown of Brescia to see what it was like inside
- Threw a dart out of a first-floor window in the direction of some City youth-team players
- Drove around Manchester city centre dressed as Santa Claus throwing money to random members of the public.
It's enough to make you wonder why any club would put up with him, and certainly helps explain why Inter Milan were happy to sell one of Italian football's most promising young players two years ago.
There have been those who have had Balotelli's card marked ever since he joined City for £24 million, who said he would be a disruptive influence and bring shame to the club.
But, whether they are right or not, the Italian has delivered for Roberto Mancini's side. He scored 13 goals in 23 Premier League appearances last season as he helped Manchester City claim the title.
Those strikes included a brace in the 6-1 drubbing of Manchester United at Old Trafford and other strikes against Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton. Of the 11 games he scored in last term, he netted the opening goal in seven of them.
He only claimed one assist in the competition last term, but it was the most crucial, guiding the ball for Sergio Aguero to score City's championship-clinching goal in stoppage time on the final day.
He is yet to miss a penalty for the club. His nonchalant style from 12 yards had seen him convert all eight spot-kicks he has taken in City colours.
His most recent one was his late equaliser in the Champions League clash against Borussia Dortmund a fortnight ago, but that has been a rare high point for him this season. With Carlos Tevez back in the frame, Balotelli has struggled to adapt to City's rotation of their four strikers, and is yet to score in six league appearances.
That has led to shows of frustration such as when he stormed off down the tunnel when he was substituted during the recent win over Sunderland. Mancini has once again backed the player he has known since he was a teenager at Inter, just as he has done many times before, but with every tantrum or tabloid appearance there will be more City fans whose patience wears thin.
Of course, there are plenty who still love him, who enjoy Balotelli both as a footballer and as a cult figure. When the striker emerged from his team bus for a game sporting a big woolly hat shaped like a giant glove, sellers in Manchester could barely keep up with the demand for them.
Balotelli's age means that he is still young enough to give hope that he can still shrug off his reputation and command attention solely on the pitch, but it also means that he would command a decent fee on the transfer market from any club willing to take a punt on him.
With the full implementation of UEFA's financial fair play rules on the horizon, City might decide they can no longer afford to keep such a liability on the wage bill.
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