He’s the man everyone loves to hate. Criticised for his on-field performances, but loved for his off-field antics, Mario Balotelli halves football straight down the middle. How long can he keep up the act?
By Justin Bryant – @Keepers_Union
In November, Time Magazine put Mario Balotelli on their cover, along with a headline which read, ‘The Meaning of Mario: What the Phenomenon of Mario Balotelli Says About Football, Race, and European Identity.’
And here I thought Falcao, with his 40 goals in 48 appearances for Atletico Madrid, was the phenomenon. But to Time’s credit, they acknowledge that the Balotelli ‘phenomenon’ is more a social than a sporting one.
Catherine Mayer, the piece’s author, makes a convincing case that Mario and his lightning-rod persona represent something greater than himself. As Italy’s first black international, he has unwittingly revealed his country’s curious, two-tiered racism: the boorish, banana-throwing kind that we all know still lingers and even flourishes in places, and a more curious, paternal sort, as seen in editorial cartoons ‘jokingly’ depicting the player as King Kong, or making puns of the word ‘black’ in headlines about him. Despite appearing to be milder, this latter form is almost more disturbing, inasmuch as it is institutional and represents not extremists but, sadly, the majority.
Mario Balotelli was born in Italy; he’s Italian. But to many of his countrymen, he will never be Italian. Balotelli is important in this sphere because he is young. A black Italian playing for the Azurri is upsetting, shocking, even scandalous to some Italians, mainly older ones. But to a ten-year-old, there’s nothing unusual about it, and so it will be to successive generations. Balotelli represents a sea change in expectations and identity.
Mayer’s article suffers a bit when it comes to football. It is peppered with the kind of language one expects from the lay press, all in service of Balotelli’s apparent genius, all of it at least slightly hyperbolic: strapping, balletic, mesmeric grace, and fluidity. I would challenge anyone to watch him play for Manchester City and notice his ‘fluidity’ before you notice that of David Silva, or Sergio Aguero’s gyroscopic balance, or Yaya Toure’s comically powerful runs. We are told that Mario has ‘the potential to shine as one of the greatest sportsmen of the age.’ His manager, Roberto Mancini, says that his ‘talent is incredible.’ He would know; he sees him every day in training. But then, it’s in Mancini’s best interest to sell this notion, that he’s worth all the distractions and suspensions, because Mancini is the one who keeps giving him second chances.
Mario Balotelli is good. At his best, he can be very good. But is he going to become one of the greatest sportsmen of the age? The list of ‘next Maradonas’ that came through the 80s is depressingly long. It includes talented flameouts, overrated wunderkinds, injury riddled journeyman, and a few perfectly good pros. The point is that none of them became the next Maradona. Conversely, Lionel Messi burst on the scene so fast and began producing true genius so immediately that there was almost no time for expectations before he fulfilled and then surpassed them. Cristiano Ronaldo’s talent smoldered for a few years, but he was superbly managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, and when his productivity caught up with his ability, Ferguson built his team around him to devastating effect. This is not going to happen anytime soon at Manchester City. Balotelli plays behind two strikers, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez, who are better than he is, and another in Edin Dzeko who may be less talented but is more reliable. If they leave, City will merely buy Falcao or Neymar or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or whoever else is currently shining brightly. Would Mancini – or any City manager – have enough confidence in Balotelli to reduce his other stars to supporting roles and play everything through him, as Sir Alex did for Ronaldo?
The nonsense that goes along with Balotelli, most of it not his doing – the silly, fabricated stories of him dressing as Santa and handing out hundred-pound notes, buying rounds for bars or books for students – none of this helps, just as it didn’t help Paul Gascoigne a generation earlier. It’s hard to tell when people are laughing at him or laughing with him. The ‘Why Always Me?’ shirt made it clear that Balotelli is in on the joke, but it’s unclear if he’s aware that his clock is ticking. The narrative of the gifted man-child which he currently enjoys – with its built-in excuses for inconsistency on the pitch and eccentricity off it – doesn’t work when the man in question is, say, 27.
You may correctly say there is still time. He is only 22. But football is impatient. At the same age, Ronaldo was hoisting the Premier League Player of the Year trophy, Wayne Rooney had already been an exceptional and consistent performer for five years, and Messi was rewriting record books. Mario is stagnating, perhaps even regressing. He has played fewer games and scored fewer goals than at this time last season. The Time article came out when City could still reasonably bask in the glow of their dramatic title. That honeymoon is now over. They are adrift of Manchester United and their smashing summer success Robin van Persie, having suffered a derby defeat on home soil in which Balotelli played dreadfully and was substituted by an exasperated Mancini. They have also been knocked out of Europe at the group stage for the second year running. Team success is another critical element in the man-child narrative. A troublesome yet talented eccentric is just fine with everyone when there’s a title at the end of the season. That same player is a cancer in a trophyless team, especially one with City’s ambitions and resources.
Ultimately, Mario Balotelli may well fulfill his potential as a footballer, or he may follow the Gascoigne route to tragic and clownish reality TV irrelevance. Something in between is more likely. Let’s hope he proves good enough to merit all the problems and attention, and that, as a result, Italy and the rest of Europe continue to rethink and redefine identity and race. Although he is currently more entertaining than productive, Mario Balotelli may well be football’s best chance to transcend entertainment.
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