Sports

Mario Balotelli's Flawed Perfection

Can we reconcile his no frills play with his bizarre off-field antics? Should we even try?

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Mario Balotelli has done a lot of stupid things. Since joining Manchester City last summer, he’s:

Wandered into an all-women’s prison.
Chalked up over $10,000 in parking tickets, parking his car in illegal spots because he can afford it.
Been found, after crashing his car, with more than $85000 in his back pocket, which he said he was carrying “Because I am rich.”
Cursed on live television.
Thrown darts at the Manchester City youth team from a first-story window because he was bored.
Worn a weird hat.
Failed to put on a practice vest.
Proclaimed that only Lionel Messi was better than him.
Admitted to not knowing whom Jack Wilshere, the future England star, is.
Tried back-heeling the ball into the goal, while on a breakaway, in a meaningless friendly.

Those are, mostly, all stupid things. They’re entertaining, absurd, stupid things. But most 21-year-olds do stupid things, except most 21-year-olds don’t have millions of dollars and aren’t living on their own in a foreign country.

Since Balotelli is a millionaire professional soccer star, one who cost Manchester City $38 million to buy from Inter Milan, his dumb shenanigans take on a new context. As you’d expect, countless columnists have bashed the Manchester City striker over the past year for these “antics.” They’ve told Balotelli that he needs to grow up, which, considering he’s only now only 21, seems fairly obvious. Yet it was all standard, angry, old, moralistic columnist fare. For the rest, Balotelli was just a fun guy to make fun of. He even seemed to do it all with a wink, like he was in on the joke. Sometimes, even, he did nice things!

But we’re talking about sports, an exercise that, inherently, makes no sense. Think about it: 22 guys wearing long socks and studded shoes, trying to kick a rubber orb filled with air under an overhang made of white-painted metal pipes. That, though, hasn’t stopped us from trying. Statistical “revolutions” in other sports have given us a better understanding for what we’re actually seeing on the field or on the court, compared with what we think we’re seeing.

In soccer, there are some stats (passes completed, distance covered, chances created, etc.), but we still don’t really know what those stats mean. So the game remains mostly subjective. Read 10 different post-game match-rating reports, and you’ll get 10 different ratings for each player. So, it’s up to us to contextualize what we’re seeing, and well, that’s not always so great.

See, this behavior storyline about Balotelli quickly shifted to his play. His off-field activities were used to explain why his on-field performance wasn’t satisfactory. He was only 20, he scored 10 goals in 28 games, and it was his first year in a new country, at a new club, but none of that was enough. There had to be a reason why he wasn’t immediately the best player in England, and yes, it was the dart throwing and the stupid statements and the prison invasions. This was the only way to make sense of it all. If he was acting like a jackass off the field, then he must not be meeting his potential on the field.

But Balotelli’s playing style is anything but immature. When asked why he doesn’t celebrate when he scores, Balotelli responded, “It is my job. That is why I don't smile. I am still happy and I can score more.” Act like you’ve been there, or something. That’s the book little kids get hit over the head with when they admire a home run or dance around after a goal. That’s “mature.” That’s something old sportswriters salivate over.
 
Balotelli just plays the game simply, too, like it’s work, fulfilling all those lunch-pail clichés. He’s the guy that “just gets the job done,” the guy we’ve been conditioned to love. Balotelli doesn’t really do anything flashy—unless it’s necessary. He’s big, strong, and, well, fundamental. Watch this volley. That is exactly how you strike a ball out of the air. At his best, he plays with efficiency, in a minimalist sort of way, doing what needs to be done without any frills. He plays the game at its most basic—like the biggest, fastest, best 10-year-old soccer player ever.

Trying to reconcile Balotelli’s playing and non-playing personas is pointless. It’s pointless to try with any athlete, but none more so than Balotelli. Nothing about him fits into any already-been-done narrative structure.

Picture a 21-year-old Italian soccer player. Then, look at Mario Balotelli. That’s not at all what a 21-year-old is supposed to look like. It’s not what a soccer player is supposed to look like. And it’s certainly not what at an Italian is supposed to look like. (Balotelli’s been the victim of racist abuse while playing for the Italian national team, and Italian fans have even taken shots at him. Juventus fans, most notably, sang, “a black Italian does not exist.”)

Balotelli was born Mario Baruwah to Ghanaian immigrants in Palermo, Italy. When he was three, the story goes, the Baruwahs gave Mario to foster parents, the Balotellis, a well-off, Italian family in Brescia. (Balotelli now refuses to talk to his parents, saying that they only came to find him once they heard he was a rich professional athlete. His parents say the exact opposite.)

After making his pro debut for Italian third-division side Lumezzane, Balotelli started to make his name as an upstart at Italian giants Inter Milan, scoring 20 goals in 59 games. But what he’ll be most remembered for is appearing on the show Striscia la Notizia, wearing the jersey of Inter’s hated rivals, AC Milan. (Milan is the club he grew up supporting.) So much for the badge-kissing, club-color-bleeding mentality that’s been lionized through guys like Steven Gerrard, Iker Casillas, and Francesco Totti. Fans want to believe—and it’s been pushed forward by writers—that players are willing to die for their club, just like the fans think they are.

At SportsIllustrated.com, Ben Smith called Balotelli a “dichotomy.” Not quite, but whatever he is—we don’t know—he’s the result of all these dichotomies in his life. A day after his house was set on fire by fireworks (he’s now Manchester’s ambassador for fireworks safety) Balotelli scored two goals against inner-city rivals and English royalty, Manchester United. He also drew a red card on defender Jonny Evans, seemingly sealing the shocking 6-1 result for City by himself and prematurely shifting the balance of power in the Premier League. After scoring the first goal against United, he lifted up his jersey, revealing the words, “Why Always Me,” in official Premier League lettering.

Why, then? Is it because, as Smith says, “English soccer has always loved a flawed idol?” Maybe. There was Eric Cantona and Paul Gascgoine, time bombs who were still loved by their fans. The clean and quiet star gets appreciated, but the ones who stumble, kick themselves in the face, and somehow still score goals on Saturday are the ones that get worshipped. That makes them like us, and maybe, that’s how Balotelli starts to make sense.

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