Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to folklore figure who briefly enlivened our sterile world.
Mario Balotelli was the most definitive proof yet that regular, reliable brilliance is boring compared to the occasional flash; the hint of a promise.
He arrived in 2010 to a country that irons its socks and thinks anything but the missionary position is for weekends only. But within a remarkably impressive time-span the Italian man-child had scandalised the normals and become a folklore figure to the rest of us.
He paid for everybody’s petrol. He gave a grand to a homeless guy. He handed out fifty pound notes to strangers when out shopping. He stopped a kid from being bullied. Robin Hood has been glorified in films and books for centuries for much less.
In amongst the stories of random altruism there were also tales of pure madness. He threw darts at youth players. He got walloped by Micah Richards in training. He once got stopped by police in Hulme and asked why he had £25,000 in the passenger seat. He responded perfectly reasonably: “Because I’m rich”.
In Kiev it transpired that he was allergic to certain kinds of grass. Mere days after agreeing to become the face of a fire safety campaign Mario got into bother by setting fireworks off from his bathroom window. Ahead of a home game the then 21-year-old showed that he was entirely incapable of putting on a bib.
A particular favourite story involves the forward’s mum flying over to his Cheshire mansion to put him on the straight and narrow. She sent Mario and two friends off to John Lewis to purchase some essentials for the house, towels and the like. He returned with a trampoline, a Vespa bike, and a Scalextric set. It’s a great tale, undiminished by the fact that John Lewis don’t sell Vespas.
Indeed to what extent any of the above is true is up for debate but then again why would anyone want to have such a debate? “Why always me?” he plaintively asked via the medium of a t-shirt after scoring the opening goal in Manchester City’s 6-1 rout of their bitter rivals United. Because you’re fascinating and enthrallingly unpredictable Mario that’s why, and in the increasingly sterile world of modern football that is gold dust.
What is more, it was always you and in addition to all that you stroked home a nonchalant beauty at Old Trafford then stood like an Adonis while parading one of the most iconic messages of our times. Truly it was a meta enquiry.
Then there was the football; a typically anarchic blend of occasional aceness and complete anonymity. Balotelli’s 20 goals during his tumultuous three years at City and singular goal with Liverpool hardly amount to prolificacy and even this scant return is balanced out by sustained absences for bust-ups, red cards and almighty strops.
Yet when he was good he was very good, offering a combination of speed, muscle and trickery that would be priceless if harnessed in a well-adjusted soul. At the end of his first campaign with the Blues he put in a man of the match performance to help secure City’s first trophy for several generations and let’s not forget his assist – his first of the season – to Aguero in May 2012 that rattled the world off its axis.
It’s early December 2011 and Manchester City are 3-1 up at home to Norwich. Six days earlier – on his mentor Roberto Mancini’s 47th birthday – Balotelli had been sent off at Anfield and despite being scheduled to miss several games over the Christmas period his punishment here was to start on the bench. But now the game was all but decided. Now he was on.
Adam Johnson turned inside the box and squared it neatly for the Palermo-born striker who blasted the ball at close range against goalkeeper John Ruddy. It spun high into the air and fell just the right side of the crossbar. There, virtually standing on the line, Balotelli waited.
As is pertinent for many examples in this series it is not the execution of a brilliant act that marks a man down as a genius: it is the unique colliding of brain cells that conjures up the idea to try the act in the first place. Any other player on the planet would have nodded home this easiest of tap-ins. Whereas Balotelli shifted his body slightly, and banged it home with his shoulder.
He turned to face his accusers, the world, with a sullen look of perfected cool. Reliable brilliance is boring. Mario Balotelli was anything but that.