You’ve probably never heard of Mario Balotelli, and if you have, it was for all the wrong reasons.
I am a huge fan of athletes with readily apparent character flaws who are rough around the edges, haven’t been corporately branded by PR people, and do things that are (in most cases) beyond comprehension. Naturally, I’m a huge Mario Balotelli apologist, because no current athlete has more potential to be either one of the best of all time or one of the biggest wastes of potential of all time. Watching the moment when a player’s potential becomes his reality (when he takes the leap, steps into the pantheon, enters the conversation, etc.) is one of the best things in sports, and I think that the only thing stopping Mario Balotelli from getting to that level is himself.
Mario Balotelli’s potential is limitless. Physically, he’s everything you’d want in a striker—two footed, big, strong, fast, and so much technical skill he doesn’t know what to do with it. There are moments when his moves make him look like “the next…” I say undisciplined-and-over-dribbling-young-Cristiano-Ronaldo, Ryan says more like a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic, if he didn’t score goals (a massive if, considering that’s what Zlatan was put on this planet to do).
Plus, Balotelli celebrates with a hump dance. How can you not want him to succeed?
For much of his life, Mario Balotelli lived a singular existence, with very little, if anything, in common with any of the people around him on a regular basis. Per this Daily Mail article, Mario Balotelli was born to Ghanaian immigrants to Italy, the Barwuahs. Then Mario Barwuah had health problems as a child and was fostered to a wealthy and influential Italian family, the Balotellis, who had the means to care for him. What began as a temporary arrangement was continuously extended until Mario became a member of the family, took their name, and ultimately became an Italian citizen.
He made his debut with third division side AC Lumezzane in 2005 when he was 15, but moved to Inter the following year. Already a promising starlet, his biological parents tried to reconnect. Mario assumed the worst, that they were looking to profit off his talent, and refused to connect with them.
Growing up in “racially charged Northern Italy,” Balotelli was forced into the role of the outsider his entire life. Recognizing the fact that, in everything he’s done, Balotelli has been thrust into (and at points, chosen for himself) the role of a black outsider struggling to break into Italian Footballing establishment that is still very homogenously white and at times very racist, helps to understand why the public and media response, and Balotelli’s often surly response to the public and media response (as well as that of his teammates) was so strong during his time in Italy.
It would be facile and misguided to point to the abuse he’s suffered as an excuse, let alone a reason for most of his inscrutable behavior. Racism didn’t compel him to wear the shirt of his team’s bitter rival, AC Milan, to a press conference. Immaturity did. And Mario Balotelli is still only 21. Patrick Vieira, the World Cup-winning French midfielder who grew up in a similar Africa-to-Europe immigrant situation (from Senegal to France), is quick to defend Balotelli, saying that youth breeds mistakes and he’ll learn eventually. Balotelli, for what it’s worth, takes the French-Senegalese legend’s words to heart, saying that he doesn’t even always listen to his parents, but he usually listens to Patrick Vieira.
Balotelli transferred to Manchester City before last season. I thought this would be a fresh start for him, that he’d thrive in England, but he got a lot more attention for what he did off the field than what he did on it, making only 17 appearances and scoring only six goals. In one year, he racked up a career’s worth of media attention, very little of it good. Off the field, he: was thrown out of a lap dance club, threw ‘at least one dart’ in the direction of youth team players, was accused of glamorizing the mafia, started a brawl with a wink (technically on the field), trespassed at a women’s prison with his brother, gave a homeless man a thousand pounds after a winning night at a casino, bought a motorbike he couldn’t ride, wrecked one car, had another wrecked for him, insulted other players during an award ceremony, took a truant fan to school and mediated a conversation with the kids that were bullying him, said, when asked why by police at a traffic stop why he had thousands of pounds hanging out of his back pocket, “because I am rich,” claimed he didn’t like Manchester and was homesick, and failed to dress himself. The only one that’s really bad is the darts. A few are classless, petulant, and/or immature (anything involving cars or other soccer players). One is probably a result of latent racism or pre-existing prejudice (who doesn’t glamorize the Mafia, really). One is chaotic good (the casino charity). One is downright laudable (truant fan that was being bullied). The rest are just entertaining.
James Milner, one of his teammates, said that he has a ton of potential and that he can learn from his mistakes, but that ‘Mario is Mario and he does strange things sometimes.’ As an aside, there’s a slightly greater than 100% chance that if an athlete has been described as “X is X and he does strange things sometimes,” they’ll be among my favorites. Balotelli’s manager at Manchester City, Roberto Mancini, who discovered him at Inter, has said that Balotelli’s volatile nature on the field isn’t representative of who he is, that he’s really just a joker who doesn’t listen to him and is sometimes also lazy.
This summer, Mario Balotelli redefined low light while committing the in-game-missed-dunk cardinal sin of attempting to be flashy and failing when he attempted a back-heel in an exhibition game against the LA Galaxy. He was subsequently benched. It was needlessly flashy, sure, but if he scored (which wasn’t likely even if it was on target because the goalie saw it every step of the way), it would have been a top play on SportsCenter.
The play works as a microcosm of Balotelli’s career: intense promise that he’s never backed up, which is then met with an inordinate amount of scrutiny, criticism, and outrage. It’s also the kind of superficial problem that is only really a problem when a player isn’t producing on the field. It’s the problem that goes away once they start (see: Dennis Rodman, the ‘redemption’ of Michael Vick).
And that’s the thing with Mario Balotelli. I think he wants to impress his teammates and be accepted for who he thinks he is—you can almost see the gears turning in his head when he thinks up the back heel in the first place, like ‘This will be so good! We’ll laugh about it on the team bus later!’—but ends up doing so in the dumbest, most counterintuitive, least constructive way possible.
Coming off the back-heel and into the new season, Balotelli could find himself as low as Manchester City’s eighth choice attacker. Maybe with the pressure off, he’ll be able to thrive, climb up that depth chart, and surprise people. Maybe he’ll think that he deserves to be at the top of the list and pout.
When Mario Balotelli said that the only player in the world better was Lionel Messi, Mancini said back it up. Cristiano Ronaldo said he needed to shut up and play. That’s all I want from him. I want Mario Balotelli to realize that hat tricks are flashier than back-heels, and to look at Kobe Bryant, who wanted to prove he was the best from day one and did it, first and foremost, by beating everyone before him (sometimes to the detriment of people around him), or at Joe DiMaggio, and see how many games he can score in consecutively, or at the 2007 New England Patriots, and realize that there’s nothing flashier than being a part of a team that wins the league by 45 points and upstages their bitter rivals in the process.
I just hope he gets out of his own way.
—Photo via redwhiteandbluearmy.blogspot.com