FOOTBALL THRIVES ON THE ECCENTRIC CAST OF CHARACTERS in its court. In it, we find rival kings like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo leading their powerful armies armed to the teeth with soldiers and assassins willing and able to win any battle. We watch travelled generals in the form of figures like Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, and Marcelo Bielsa, each with their unique way of leading strategising ways to win at all costs. As patrons of football’s ominous sirens, we’re drawn in to see the game’s anti-heroes shock the audience whenever the game bares its sinister grin courtesy of Luis Suárez. The cast of characters is extensive, but there’s one character archetype so typecast in the grand scheme of the production that one man fills the role above all others. The court needs its court jester and football has graciously proffered Mario Balotelli.
Historically, the court jester was seen as an entertainer granted leeway to be a distractor with license to act to excess. Mario Balotelli is football’s ultimate trickster but make no mistake, he’s no buffoon. The man performs in such a way that his teammates and the mob are at his mercy. When he’s ready to play to his potential he’s lauded, loved, and applauded. But in the event things turn sour, he’s loathed, jeered and the recipient of unanimous sneers.
Balotelli has stepped into a situation at Liverpool where its two most recent strikers of prominence have either been considered Judas, played by Fernando Torres, or the hybrid heroic diablo himself, Luis Suárez. With a rich history of talismanic strikers perhaps it comes as no surprise that Liverpool’s faithful feels its newest striker can handle anything thrown at him or anything he brings on himself.
Born to Ghanaian immigrants in Palermo, Sicily, Mario Balotelli was given up to Italian foster parents at the age of three. As one of football’s most polarizing individuals and like many of the outliers in the game, Balotelli possesses the unique ability to play the hero and villain in each ninety minute one-act play. The attention and abuse is both undeserved and well-earned. The juxtaposition of such logic has its roots in the money-infused madness of world football. When a man like Mario Balotelli became a presence at Internazionale, the world of Italian football was thrust into the spotlight as the culture clash of controversy yet again breathed life into the racism-laden viewpoints directed at the young Italian.
When Balotelli became the youngest Inter player to score in the UEFA Champions League, the player rising in potential and expectation entered a world of insanity that made him the scapegoat for the vitriolic tongues of Italy and Europe’s fanatical and racist factions. Being targeted with racist chants places Balotelli in a perpetual frame of mind that fans and media personalities struggle to empathize with as they issue judgements. The more talented a player, the more blasé they become when things go awry, to frustration of all others – this is a speciality of Balotelli’s. Players with a disconnect between their talent and self-control see the game differently. What makes them great also makes them tick.
Balotelli has long been known for his disciplinary problems with each team he has played in. Part of what many fail to understand from the outside looking in is where that threshold is at any given time. However, beyond Mario Balotelli the footballer is a young man shackled with his own volatile persona, naivety, and personal baggage. His borderline adolescent ego locks horns with coaches whose own egos flatten all opposing their directive. Many of Balotelli’s moments of madness and his prideful battles are the unpredictable Italian’s own doing. There’s a formative saying, “the decisions we make dictate the lives we lead” and it seems as if Mario Balotelli ever received such a lecture, it fell on deaf ears.
The court jester can play the fool and an oddly endearing skill is his ability to make others the fool. Stemming back to the incident where he donned an AC Milan jersey on an Italian television show to his continual fall-outs with the maestro of egotism, José Mourinho, Mario Balotelli’s behaviour opens the door for high doses of criticism. His conduct is part attention-seeking behaviour and immaturity. And part of it is who he is as a person – unpredictable beyond comparison.
At Manchester City, his often apathetic attitude and regular foul-ups on the pitch triggered a massive rift between himself and the British media, his own teammates, and Roberto Mancini. The narrative of Balotelli’s mischief making is well-documented. For example, when police supposedly questioned why he had £5,000 in his back pocket after crashing his Audi R8, he didn’t disappoint with his response, “Because I am rich”. If he has an angelic grin, Mephistopheles is surely at the control panel of his mind. From throwing darts at youth players from a training ground window to attempting to light fireworks off in the bathroom of his mansion, the man is at times a parody of himself.
Football needs such charismatic characters. Who else claims to be better than Lionel Messi after winning the Golden Boy award? The award itself is laughable compared to football’s more prestigious awards and is awarded by journalists to players from Europe under the age of 21. Perhaps what people remember most is when Balotelli claimed he didn’t know who Jack Wilshere, the player he edged to claim the award. It was a display of arrogance that placed him on the media’s tenterhooks. A number of on-field shenanigans at Manchester City put him at odds with then manager Roberto Mancini, who chalked Balotelli’s behaviour down to his age. “The problem is because of his age, he can make some mistakes. He’s Mario. He’s crazy – but I love him because he’s a good guy.”
Arriving at Liverpool from AC Milan where a relatively subdued version of Mario Balotelli found the back of the net on 30 occasions presents him with a challenge to fill the void of Luis Suárez’s departure. Add Liverpool’s famous history in European football and the clubs extended absence from the Champions League and the pressure to perform becomes palpable. To date, Balotelli hasn’t endeared himself to the Liverpool faithful. Predictably, the knives are out and public is starting to turn on a player who should know better than to drop his effort level while wearing Liverpool red. In essence, the Italian is the antithesis of what Luis Suárez brought to Liverpool with his tenacious attitude and relentless work rate.
Mario Balotelli is an enigma replacing perhaps the most prolific riddle-box striker on the planet in Suarez. For a player of such high-profile status and often public exuberance, Balotelli finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps it’s less about his lack of goals at it is his adolescent attitude that boils the blood of pundits and supporters alike. Swapping shirts with Pepe in sight of the crowd on the wrong end of a thrashing in progress against Real Madrid is news. Switching off and turning away from the play against Queens Park Rangers is news. Missing wide open goals in a post-Liverpool Fernando Torres-esque manner is news. Anything Mario Balotelli does wrong is news.
Time will tell if his decision to display his “Why Always Me?” shirt actually did more harm than good. The man is repeatedly the victim of his own circumstance. Should he find form and the back of the net, people will still find something to dissect regarding Mario Balotelli, and in fairness, he will be happy to oblige the mob. As troubling as cheers emanating from the Kop for his substitution might seem, it’s the condemnation from Liverpool legend, Jamie Carragher, a player who epitomized commitment to the cause, that speaks to a deeper problem at Anfield:
“I’d be surprised to see him here next season. It was just a panic; they needed someone. They left it too late. A lot of the players have come in and done a decent job here and there, but nobody’s really done anything. They bring in Balotelli late on – it’s obviously a panic.”
Another former Liverpool player, Jamie Redknapp, was critical and cynical of both Mario Balotelli and manager Brendan Rodgers. “I don’t blame Mario Balotelli – I blame Brendan Rodgers for bringing him here. How he thought he could turn around a player that Mourinho, Mancini, Prandelli have all washed their hands of…” Redknapp’s criticism extended, “There’s a reason when you go to the supermarket and things are half price. Why on earth they went for him, I’ll never know. They should have just left him alone. The fact he [Rodgers] went and got him, it just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
What is striking about these comments is they belong to men who played for Liverpool when Champions League football frequented Anfield. They played for a Liverpool that still won a sporadic piece of silverware. It’s as though Carragher and Redknapp both suggest Mario Balotelli doesn’t quite understand the responsibility of playing for the club. Right or wrong, the former Manchester City star isn’t a stranger to success, nor is anyone at Liverpool in a position to put all the blame on one man who arrived late in the transfer window and hasn’t given him the support he most likely needs on the field.
Fault has placed on Mario Balotelli’s shoulders for much that is wrong at Anfield, but has he become the scapegoat and target for deflection for bigger issues at the club. Performances don’t lie and Balotelli has yet to have a good one for Liverpool. Then again, neither has anyone else – at least to the level of expectation Liverpool set itself up for last year. The porous defence is in complete disarray and the goalkeeping has been questionable. Liverpool could once tap into Steven Gerrard’s engine, but no man defeats Father Time. In many ways, the defeat at the hands of Real Madrid showed exactly what a collection of eleven individuals trying to play as a team looks like.
Some players will always wear the shroud of criticism and Mario Balotelli’s struggles are as internal as they are eternal. His apathy is as palpable as is his brilliance. What a player of his stature needs is a captain like Steven Gerrard. What a manager like Brendan Rodgers needs is a way to stop the bleeding – and that doesn’t start with Mario Balotelli. That starts with sorting out the defence and goalkeeping.
Players like Balotelli march to their own beat and attempting to control the mechanism that makes them tick is a fool’s game. The scapegoat is and will continue to be Italy’s and Liverpool’s enfant terrible. For a player blessed with all the talent in the world, he’s mutually cursed with a reputation that precedes him. And that makes him a thorn in everyone’s side.
Looking past the facade, recall there’s another striker who once played for Liverpool with a similar reputation fluctuating between hero and pariah now calling the Camp Nou home – and when he was given time and people empathized, football and Liverpool Football Club were better for it.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3