Watching Mario Balotelli is akin to watching a child lost in an adult world. The enigmatic Italian circumvents rational, sidesteps normality and smashes expectation. Mario Balotelli is not normal; far from it.
Unpredictability is a trait that seems to define the 22-year-old. A player who is, on his day, such as the Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany, literally unplayable. Balotelli’s excellence is mitigated by such abject expanses of ineptitude one has cause to ponder the Italian’s career choice.
Yet Balotelli is Balotelli. In his complete complexity comes his sheer brilliance. A perma-fixture in the infatuated British press, the mercurial Italian time and time again escapes the established perimeters of rational logic.
The name Balotelli has assumed legendary status in football circles. The legend on occasion sometimes even eclipses the man, as shown in a mystifying interview with former Oasis frontman and ardent City fan Noel Gallagher that sadly dissipated many of the hilarious urban legends that had been built upon ‘Super Mario’.
It was apparently not true that he gave £1000 to a tramp after a large casino win, neither did he escort a bully victim into school to confront his head teacher. It was also a factual inaccuracy that Balotelli dressed as Santa, driving around Manchester and handing out money to passersby. Balotelli had essentially become a myth: a crazy eccentric whose irrational behavior came to define him more than his footballing ability.
Yet there was truth in the multitude of Balotelli-related rumours. He did throw darts at unsuspecting youth team players, it was true that he came back from a shopping trip for house supplies with a quad bike, trampoline and a Scaletrix, and his on-pitch antics are inescapable.
Mario was good fun. I could write a book of 200 pages of my time in Milan with Mario, but the book would not be a drama. The book would be a comedy! I remember one in Kazan. We went to Kazan in the Champions League. In that match I had all my strikers injured. No Milito, no Eto’o. I was really in trouble and Mario was the only one. Mario gets a yellow card in minute 42 or 43. So when I get to the dressing room at half-time, I spent, I would say 14 of the 15 minutes speaking only for Mario. “Mario I cannot change you, I cannot make a change. I don’t have a striker on the bench. Don’t touch anybody. Play only with the ball. When we lose the ball, no reaction. If somebody provocates you, no reaction. If the referee makes a mistake, no reaction. Mario please. Minute 46, red card!
A managerial headache, Balotelli is seemingly incapable of heeding simple requests. Headstrong and unrepentant, the Italian plows his own furrow, leaps off the beaten track and careers headfirst into the unknown.
In this all-seeing media age, the maintenance of reputation is of paramount importance. The press sees, hears and finds out all. The result is a series of bland professionals, void of notoriety and entirely separate from mainstream society. In this sense Balotelli is a breath of fresh air. Reputation is of no relevance, he can do what he wants and often does.
He is not the greatest player in the world, despite his own thoughts to the contrary. Indeed, to watch him in isolation in some matches it would be pertinent to wonder how he was a Premier League football player at all. Yet this is almost irrelevant. We don’t love him for his footballing ability. It his foibles and eccentricity that has constructed and maintained the Balotelli legend; football is merely a vehicle which brings his antics to our attention.
Balotelli crosses the divide between football fans and factions. Regardless of team allegiances, the almost universal admiration for Balotelli is a unifying cult, an escape even from the normality of football.
The deadline day decision, therefore, to facilitate Balotelli’s move back to his homeland and his favourite club AC Milan—whose shirt he wore during an interview while playing for arch-rivals Inter Milan—is a double-edged sword.
In reality it was an inevitability. Manchester City cannot afford to lavish a huge salary on a player who consistently fails to even get close to justifying it. The champions cannot afford for their reputation to be further slurried by Balotelli’s illogical escapades. His well-publicized training ground spat with manager Roberto Mancini was the straw that broke City’s resistance. Mario Balotelli had become expendable and his departure was only a matter of time.
Yet, despite the sense of the move, it does not escape that fact that the Italian will be sorely missed. We will no longer hear the latest installment of Mario-gate, the sports column inches with be a barren and dreary place.
So it is with a heavy heart that the legions of Balotelli converts will bid adieu. Thank-you for the laughs. Thank-you for your the brief glimpses of just how good you can be at football and most of all thank-you for being the basis of an urban legend that will persist long after you have departed these shores.
Balotelli thanked the City fans for their enduring support with typically grandiose excess:
“I thank them for all their support of me” he said, “Maybe one day we will see each other again.”
And with that he disappeared into the sunset on his majestic steed of victory, leaving men, women and children weeping in his wake.
Thank you Mario, and goodbye.