Sport: The Tactical Foul – Arrivederci Mario
Picture the scene: it’s early September 2010. Police have been called to the scene of a minor car crash. A 20 year old Mario Balotelli, less than a month in England, is rubbing his head while looking at the wreck of his new Audi R8. He passes a breathalyser test and independent witnesses attest that it was just a genuine accident. The officers find £5,000 in cash in Balotelli’s back pocket and ask why he is carrying such an unusually large sum of money around. Confused, the striker replies matter-of-factly ‘because I am rich’.
Objectively speaking, there’s very little to dislike about Super Mario. He dispatches penalties with a freakish coolness and efficiency the English would kill to distil. His talent is indisputable For all the concerns about his consistency, he has had a decent goalscoring record for both Internazionale and Manchester City. And for those who say he can’t turn it on in big games, he put Ireland to the sword last summer when Italy needed the win to qualify for the quarter-finals. More crucially, it was Balotelli whose vision, strength, and effort provided the assist for Sergio Aguero’s winning goal against QPR in the final seconds of last season, giving the title to the blue half of Manchester for the first time in 44 years. Guess who volunteered to organise the victory party for his teammates the following week?
And partying is something Balotelli is known for doing well, albeit not in the Ronaldinho or Adriano sense of the phrase, but in truly memorable ways. A pre-Halloween party at his residence in November 2011 saw him supervising guests setting off fireworks in his bathroom. To no one’s surprise, that resulted in his house burning down to the ground just 36 hours before the biggest match of the season against bitter city rivals Manchester United. Much was made of the striker’s irresponsibility, and that his manager, fellow Italian Roberto Mancini, should drop Balotelli to teach him a lesson about professionalism and a load of other high-horse rubbish. Not Mario. Instead, he started the game and scored two goals in an unlikely 6-1 rout of the reigning champions. He pulled up his jersey to reveal the now-infamous ‘Why Always Me?’ shirt. Naturally, he was revealed as the new face of the British firework safety campaign the next day too. Mario later issued a statement that he wanted to put the past week behind him and focus on his health, his football, and his girlfriends. Yes, plural.
Balotelli’s first goals for Manchester City came in the one match in November 2010, scoring a brace in the 2-0 triumph over West Bromwich Albion. He also earned his first red card in the same game for an interesting kind of hat trick, by bundling over poor old Youssouf Mulumbu. Shortly after that, he won the Golden Boy award – a journalists’ award for a consensus opinion of the best under-21 footballer in Europe. Upon receipt, Balotelli explained, with no humour, that it must have been an easy decision because the only player on Earth as good as him at the moment is Barcelona’s 4-time consecutive Ballon D’or-winning Lionel Messi. When asked what he thought of the runner-up of the award, England International and Arsenal midfield maestro Jack Wilshere, he said ‘Who? I don’t know who he is, but if wants to meet me, I can teach him how to play football.’
He says these things because, like his namesake, Super Mario lives in a different world to the rest of us. His may or may not be filled with talking mushrooms and tubby dungarees, but Balotelli sees things in very distinctive lights and speaks with an honesty that is often attached to his barbed wire hubris. With fears of racist chants and abuse, and racially-charged violence at last summer’s Euro Championships, Balotelli simply stated ‘I will shoot any racists’. There were no reported racist incidents at Italy’s games. The troublemakers weren’t willing to take a risk that he could have been joking. Absolutely no one would have been shocked to find out whether or not Mario played the entire tournament with a pistol in his shorts.
Balotelli always came with a bit of a nasty streak too. He was once fined for throwing a dart at a youth team player (‘because it was funny’), or when he stamped on Scott Parker’s face, the two-yellow-cards-in-fifteen-minutes against Liverpool, the match against Arsenal where he tried to injure every single player for the North London team. He was also prone to the odd hilarious mishap, including an ill-attempted exhibition of skill during a pre-season friendly in the USA, something that can only be described as backheelgate, and is laudable for teammate Edin Dzeko’s reaction alone. Or the time when he couldn’t put his training bib on. Again: just so funny.
Few footballers are as entertaining both on the pitch and off it as Mario Balotelli. Make that precious few, as the talented, troubled and terrific Ghanaian-born Italian departs Manchester for the last time as a City player later this week. Though his playing time has been diminished of late, he still continues to amuse us, whether it be by engaging in fisticuffs during training with his manager, or posting pictures of himself on Twitter with his brother drinking Cristal and playing Mario Kart Wii. It’s been anything but a peaceful ride, but it’s certainly been a most enjoyable and colourful one. It’s incredible to believe that he’s still only 22, has given us so many memories and still has a undoubtedly brilliant career ahead of him. Fans all around the league will remorse at the departure of a true star, and the reduced regularity with which we see him now that he makes his way to Italy. That most unique of people: a footballer with a grass allergy.