There are some footballers you know that you can just light the touch paper with and then watch them fly off the handle. It would be ill advised, for example, to terrier-like snap at the heels of Joey Barton, should you not wish to feel his next challenge the next time the ball is in your vicinity. Personally, I would never consider excluding the goalkeepers from a 5-a-side training game when Roy Keane was in my international squad, should I want to avoid several bust ups that resulted in his acrimonious departure from the World Cup. It’s probably not a good idea, also, to be a fan of the opposing team standing near the tunnel, if Eric Cantona has just been sent off.
Step forward Mario Balotelli. The City player that opposition fans love to hate, Balotelli is the one player that, when he starts for City, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get: an anonymous 90 minutes, a hot-headed substitution, a red card for a silly kick-out, two yellow cards for dissent, a brilliant hat-trick, moments of pure genius with the ball at his feet… Any of those things (and more) could happen and little of it would be a surprise.
His first City appearance yielded his first City goal: away in Romania to FC Timisoara, he scored the only goal of the game and set City on their way to the group stage of the Europa League, before quite seriously injuring his knee. It hasn’t helped him that that injury ruled him out for large spells of this season and, despite a scoring record of ten goals in eighteen games, City still haven’t seen the Italian’s best form. And, clearly, if ten goals in eighteen appearances isn’t his best form, a lot of blues won’t be able to wait to see it.
If there is one player in City’s team, though, that would be entitled to have something of a chip on his shoulder, it’s Mario Balotelli. As a small child, he had serious intestinal problems that required a series of life-saving operations to fix. His parents, both Ghanaian immigrants living in Italy, asked the country’s social services for help because of cramped living space. Balotelli was then fostered and, as he grew up into the life of a professional footballer, his biological parents asked for their son back – a move that Balotelli himself disagreed with, describing them as ‘glory hunters’ and believing they only wanted him back because of his success.
And Mario’s problems didn’t end there. Despite a desire to represent Italy, he was denied the chance to join the Under 15s and Under 17s squads because of bureaucratic issues: to the country in which he lived and the country he was from, he wasn’t an Italian citizen. Yet, his wish to play for Italy couldn’t have been stronger, a point he re-iterated when turning down an international call-up from Ghana.
Then throw into the mix a career in Italy shrouded by racism: in only his second senior cap for Italy in November 2010, he was subjected to abuse by a section of his own fans. These fans also held aloft a banner reading “No to a multi-ethnic national team”. And it’s not just while he was representing the national team; while he was with Inter Milan, sections of the Juventus support targetted him and taunted Balotelli with vile racial abuse.
When City travelled to Turin to play Juventus, Balotelli was reportedly relieved that he didn’t have to make the trip; a decision made by Roberto Mancini, very aware of the problems Balotelli had faced there in the past, and a decision taken on that basis that City had already qualified.
Yet it is this boy who has ten goals in eighteen appearances, this boy who has had injury problems throughout his first season in England, this boy who has suffered racist abuse for most of his life, this boy who was denied the chance to represent his country because of a daft law, this boy who has had a turbulent upbringing… He is the one who is petulant and troubled. It’s easy to forget that he is just a kid with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
So he doesn’t smile, who gives a damn? His reasoning, on his arrival at City, was simple: scoring is as normal to him as any other everyday activity is to everyone else and one wouldn’t smile because they were cooking dinner or driving to work. And who cares if he looks glum if his scoring record stays as good as it is?
The problem is, Balotelli’s reputation precedes him. He’s the petulant child that shows dissent when things don’t go his way. Several times already this season, he has been shown yellow cards for his reaction to decisions; reactions that are no different than those of the likes of Rooney or Terry or Gerrard. Yet you can count on one hand collectively the number of yellow cards those players receive for that reaction over the course of a season.
And yet, this week, we have seen a brand new Mario Balotelli. This is a Mario Balotelli that acted as the peacemaker in a ‘disagreement’ between Aston Villa’s Richard Dunne and City’s Yaya Touré in the FA Cup fifth round tie. The man normally associated with causing trouble was the one man who was preventing it from happening.
His goal in that game, too, was something I was surprised hasn’t garnered more attention. The ITV commentators were totally underwhelmed, but it was one of the best goals you’ll see this season. A first time, side-footed, placed, half-volley, from a ball that was on its upward motion after bouncing from over his shoulder was greeted as if it were a tap-in.
And that off the back of Roberto Mancini’s open criticism of the forward after the 1-1 draw with Fulham. Balotelli scored another corker that match, too, but, as Mancini pointed out, he didn’t do much else. Normally, I would feel very uneasy with a manager openly criticising his players, but Mancini has got form (Adam Johnson, Joe Hart, Carlos Tevez) and it has worked. And if there’s anyone who knows how to get the best out of Mario Balotelli, then it’s the man in the Eastlands dugout.
For the moment, Mario’s in the middle of what he needs: a quiet few games, with a few goals and without controversy. He doesn’t need to grow up, as so many pundits have commented; in fact he’s probably the one player in City’s squad that has grown up quicker than anybody else, given what he has dealt with in the past.
Perhaps it’s time everybody else got off his back and just let him do his job.
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