Football just a trivial pursuit for baffling Balotelli
Anyone hoping the enigmatic forward is about to “grow up” – that is, to start playing with the commitment of a Luis Suarez or a Shane Long – is likely to be disappointed
Everyone agrees Mario Balotelli would be a hell of a player if only he would take the game more seriously. But to do that, he would have to be a different person. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
This week last year, Sports Illustrated featured a foreign soccer player on their cover for only the sixth time in their 60-year history. The man they chose to follow where only Pele, Maradona, Chinaglia, Passarella and Beckham had gone before was Mario Balotelli.
The Balotelli story was entitled “The Most Interesting Man In The World,” and the thrust of it was that Balotelli “figures to be one of the dominant forwards at next year’s World Cup in Brazil”.
Balotelli’s World Cup ended in the same match as that of the man he is set to replace at Anfield, Luis Suarez. Both players will look back on June 24th in Natal as one of the worst days of their career. Suarez emerged from the Italy-Uruguay match banned from international football for nine matches and all forms of football for four months, so it’s impressive to consider the consequences for Balotelli’s reputation were actually even worse.
Italy manager Cesare Prandelli substituted Balotelli at half-time after witnessing perhaps the worst individual performance of the 2014 World Cup: 45 minutes, 10 passes, four fouls, one pathetic shot. After letting his team-mates down on the field, Balotelli angered them further by refusing to wait and listen to Andrea Pirlo’s speech to mark his international retirement, going out and sit on the bus by himself.
ComplainedGianluigi Buffon complained that Italy’s young players always left it to the senior players to “pull the cart out of the mud”. Daniele de Rossi declared that Italy had to “start again, with real men — not Panini stickers and “characters”. Elsewhere in the stadium, Prandelli was resigning and admitting that building the team around Balotelli had been a terrible mistake.
Prandelli’s admission recalled the scene on April 8th, 2012 at the Emirates Stadium, when Roberto Mancini, pale with rage, declared he was “finished” with Balotelli, after the player got himself stupidly sent off in a crucial match on the run-in.
The striking thing about Balotelli’s performance that day was his emotional disconnectedness from the occasion. He had forgotten about the game and instead was pursuing vendettas against Bacary Sagna and Alexandre Song.
That sense of disconnectedness is a recurrent theme. Whatever the group’s prevailing mood, Balotelli’s mood is probably the opposite.
A famous photo shows him after the final whistle has gone in City’s 2011 FA Cup semi-final win over Manchester United.
Balotelli had made some gloating remark to Rio Ferdinand and the United players reacted furiously. The photo shows Ferdinand, Anderson, Nani, Mancini and others scuffling around Balotelli; some of them are grabbing his shirt, all of their faces are contorted with rage. Balotelli’s face is a mask of serenity.
In the last minute of the 2012 season, when most of the City players had long since succumbed to blind panic, it was Balotelli who had the calmness and composure to play a precise pass into the path of Sergio Aguero, who scored the goal that won the league.
That was the sort of moment that made Prandelli and Mancini such great believers in Balotelli. They consistently picked him when under pressure from the media to leave him out; they lavished him with emotional support in the hope of inspiring such a moment. Mancini maintained that Balotelli could be the best player in the world, and once even said that he loved the player as though he were one of his own children.
People often say of Balotelli “all he wants is to be loved”, but the way he repaid the devotion of Prandelli and Mancini hinted at a perverse tendency – a strange urge to disappoint the ones who love him the most. Maybe it’s his way of testing them: do you really love me, or are you just hoping I’ll prove useful to you?
Lose faithIn the end, of course, it turned out that what Prandelli and Mancini really loved about Balotelli was not Balotelli himself but his potential on the football field. Since the World Cup, Italian football has begun to lose faith in Balotelli’s potential.
Last week, it was widely argued the Balotelli deal must make sense because he was only costing Liverpool €4million more than Southampton paid for Shane Long. It must have been irritating for Long to find himself being used in this way. It’s true he has only a fraction of Balotelli’s talent, but he has made it to the Premier League because he gives everything he has to the game.
So, too, does Suarez, who plays every match as if it were the most important event in the history of the world, while Balotelli plays like a man who understands the essential triviality of football.
That’s one reason why the statistics show Suarez generally does twice as much as Balotelli in a match: twice as many touches, twice as many goals, twice as many assists, three times as many tackles.
Everyone agrees Balotelli would be a hell of a player if only he would take the game more seriously. But to do that, he would have to be a different person. Anyone who hopes Balotelli is about to “grow up” – that is, to start playing with the consistent commitment of a Suarez or a Shane Long — is likely to be disappointed.