Only Mario Balotelli Can Decide If He Will Ever Live Up to His Potential

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Only Mario Balotelli Can Decide If He Will Ever Live Up to His Potential
Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

It was the sort of goal that makes opponents wonder why they even bothered.

Bologna had got their tactics almost exactly right at San Siro on Friday night, allowing Milan the ball but denying them any spaces to exploit as the Rossoblu pursued a point that could have proved invaluable in their struggle against relegation. For 86 minutes they suffocated their hosts completely. And then Mario Balotelli scored anyway.

The AC Milan striker was, according to Gazzetta dello Sport’s measurements, 39 metres from goal when he let fly from the right-hand channel. Including the goalkeeper Gianluca Curci, there were at least four Bologna players between him and his intended target. None of it mattered. The ball arched off Balotelli’s boot and into the far top corner of the net.

Milan won the game, 1-0, with every other act rendered meaningless by this singular moment of brilliance.

As usual, Balotelli had celebrated with a shrug and a strut back toward the halfway line. The striker is famously said to have compared his work in the past to that of postmen, pointing out that they do not go wild after delivering each item in their truck. Perhaps that would be different if one ever learned how to fire letters into mailboxes at 59 mph.

Balotelli justifies his nonchalance by making such extraordinary finishes seem routine.

That strike against Bologna was an instant goal-of-the-season contender, but not necessarily the best of his young career. He scored a similarly breathtaking long-range effort for Italy against Brazil in a friendly in Geneva last March. And then there is the one he scored against Poland back in 2011 in just his sixth appearance for the national team.

Indeed, it can sometimes appear that Balotelli is more efficient from distance than he is at close range. Five of his 10 goals in Serie A this season have been from outside the box. He leads the division in that category.

But that fact, in itself, raises questions. It is one thing to score the occasional wonder-goal, but quite another to be a consistent presence for your team. Milan’s manager, Clarence Seedorf, expressed a view shared by many fans last week when he suggested that Balotelli, for all his qualities, could not yet be considered a truly elite player.

Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

"Mario is a great talent," said the Dutchman during his press conference last Thursday (full quotes available in Italian on the website of Il Giornale di Sicilia, h/t Goal.com for the translation). “We hope he can explode and become the champion that he still isn’t yet."

That last word is the key one.

Because while Balotelli’s goals might make for an impressive YouTube collection, they do not yet add up to the sort of all-round contribution that Milan need from a player around whom they are seeking to build a team. 

From a purely statistical standpoint, a return of 10 goals in 18 league games is not at all bad, but too often those strikes have appeared like the one against Bologna—completely out of the blue in an otherwise nondescript performance.

It has been mooted that the player is being used out of position and being asked to play as a lone striker in Seedorf’s 4-2-3-1, when his natural preference is to drop deep and work outside the box.

Asked ahead of Milan’s Champions League fixture with Atletico Madrid whether he would be happier playing in a two-man attack with Giampaolo Pazzini—a natural poacher—Balotelli said: “It’s a fact: when we play together, one of us will score a goal.”

But it also seems likely that his problems run deeper. There is no question that Balotelli struggles at times with the intense media scrutiny that accompanies his career, a situation that seemed to come to a head a week-and-a-half ago, as he wept in the dugout after being substituted during Milan’s loss to Napoli.

It was the end of a highly emotional week for the player, who, after a DNA test, had acknowledged paternity of Pia, the one-year-old daughter of his ex-girlfriend Raffaela Fico, for the first time. His new team-mate Adel Taarabt would later suggest that Balotelli had been upset at not being able to dedicate a goal to his little girl, but knowing that the world’s eyes were upon him cannot have made the situation any easier.

His brother, Enoch, lashed out at the reaction on Twitter, telling the striker's critics to leave him be.

It was just the latest plea from someone within the player’s camp that he be given space to get on with his life.

Balotelli’s agent, Mino Raiola, had suggested last October that perhaps it was a mistake to bring the player back to Italy in the first place, telling the Milan Channel that “in Italy people only talk about politics and Balotelli” (h/t Gazzetta dello Sport).

Raiola, of course, was being disingenuous by suggesting that the press attention had been any less intrusive in England, where Balotelli was a go-to source of tabloid tittle-tattle.

Along with the famous story about fireworks in bathrooms were many that Balotelli claims to have been total fabrications. In an interview with Sports Illustrated last August, the player stated that he had never driven to a school to confront a bully, nor given a homeless man thousands of pounds in cash.

But the problem with complaining about media intrusion, in any case, is that doing so is only ever likely to result in increasing the focus even more.

As perhaps the most prominent black Italian footballer of all time, not to mention one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people on the planet in 2013, he is, for better or worse, simply not in a position to opt out of the spotlight. That will remain true even if he does eventually move back abroad.

And so the question remains whether he can learn to live with such scrutiny, to focus on and refine his game while accepting that the world is going to pass judgement on him, even when doing so is utterly unfair. Friday's goal was yet another reminder of what Balotelli is capable of, but only he can determine whether or not that potential gets fulfilled.

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