So, here we go again. I wrote about him last year repeatedly, I wrote about him elsewhere last week, with another “bust-up” story tediously finding its way into the newspapers, and like night following day or Paul Scholes fouling an opposition player, here we are again with the weekly bust-up story. This time, Mario Balotelli “stormed off the pitch” after being substituted early in the 2nd half against Sunderland.
Stormed off? Not my words, but those of your average dullard tabloid hack, this time Joe Bernstein at the Daily Mail leading the way. He did nothing of the sort of course, in fact he was barely moving at all as he trudged off, but apparently that counts as storming off to some nowadays.
There was no real story with Balotelli on Saturday. He did ok in the first half, but as always seemed to lack the desire or work rate, but it was by no means his worst performance. He then walked straight down the tunnel, giving the press an easy story, then left the country to go on international duty, giving the press another easy story. Carte blanche therefore for the press to publish out the same article wheeled out 30 times before, of the owners losing patience with him, leading to an inevitable month of transfer speculation in January (and before) linking him either to a mega-money move to PSG, or back to Italy, probably Milan. We’ve been here before. Last week, Mancini was reported to have pushed him in the tunnel. The week before he was known to be exasperated at his smoking habit. Before that, a long lens captured a “bust up” as Mancini spoke to him on the training ground! OMG!
An enigma wrapped inside a puzzle, wrapped inside another enigma, coated with a puzzle. Or summat. No one seems to know what goes on inside Balotelli’s head, though Roberto Mancini will know better than most. The case for the defence is as long as the case for the prosecution. He has been subject to ridiculous provocation on the pitch, and ridiculous slurs off it. Fabricated stories about him appear almost daily. A red card at Liverpool stands out as one of the most ridiculous dismissals of his City career, a referee once more conned by an opposition player understandably targeting Balotelli, to wind him up, and doing so successfully. A red card at West Brom the previous season was the most ridiculous of all. The second yellow card at Arsenal last season was equally lame, though as it turned out he deserved red for his actions elsewhere. He gets kicked from pillar to post at times, and most of the time he doesn’t react, he keeps his calm. But where’s the story in that? Where’s the story in Stoke’s Andy Wilkinson getting a three-match ban the other week for elbowing Balotelli in the head? It’s certainly not half the story that would have dominated the airwaves if it had been the other way round, but that’s the price that the big names have to pay. When Balotelli was banned for his supposed “stamp” on Scott Parker, the Telegraph ran a story (anonymously of course) asking if Balotelli could be subject to police charges.
And he clearly doesn’t help himself. His whole demeanour will of course lead to opposition players trying to rile him. His reputation will sub-consciously linger in referees’ minds when evaluating incidents, however much they may deny it. When Graham Poll is appearing on Talksport decrying his hairstyle, it gives you a good insight into how match officials enter the field with agendas and preconceived ideas. Maybe Balotelli deserves it then. Hey, he doesn’t smile enough for my liking, so throw the book at him.
He has a reputation, and it will never leave him now. He’s not the only one of course, but he goes to ground too easily, and plays the victim too often. Some days he seems not to be bothered, sometimes he reacts to provocation. He is no longer a kid, and the excuse that he is young is now wearing thin. And though the stories about him are usually exaggerated, sensationalist drivel, he makes these stories easy to write.
After all, after his substitution against Sunderland, would it have been too much to go and sit on the bench as most players do, and watch the rest of the game, and support the team? He wasn’t the only player to walk down the tunnel after being substituted that day (Silva and Adam Johnson did it, but later on in the match), but the press will inevitably pick up on him, and make a story out of it. Why did he need to give them that story?
The problem is, it’s getting to the point that it’s just not worth the hassle for City. Balotelli is a distraction that no team needs. Innocent or guilty, his life is one long soap opera, and he will never be left alone. Managers may use distractions to divert attention away from poor performances, but a constant distraction is more of a hindrance than a help. Mancini must be bored of being asked about his Italian striker and you wonder if team mates are sick of the circus too, and the possibility that he gets preferential treatment from his manager.
I would wager that most City fans have shown patience with Mario, which is what he deserved. He came to City a young man in a foreign country, into a pressure-cooker environment, and an alien culture. But personally I can never excuse less than 100% effort from any player representing my team. The folly of youth does not excuse that. His performances towards the end of City’s FA Cup winning season suggested a new maturity that didn’t really materialise last season. A strong showing in the European Finals in the summer suggested this maturity once more, but he again appears to have taken a step backwards. If he was an average player putting in average performances, we could understand. But it’s the knowledge of just how good he can be that frustrates the most.
Mario Balotelli clearly has an active mind, he gets distracted, bored easily, he seeks out new things, new challenges. He is not responsible for the image of him constructed by others, of false tales passed round social media sites, of hatchet jobs constructed by members of the press. He is answerable to the club itself, and to the manager and us fans, and it is on the pitch we should judge him. But it is here that he has to deliver consistently to justify his inclusion in teams, his transfer fee, and his large wages. This is a crucial season for him on the pitch, and it is here he will be ultimately judged. If he cannot be seen to be improving season on season, and maturing with it, if he cannot put in the effort week in week out, then there will come a point where enough will be enough. And that point is getting closer for more and more City fans.