Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Mario Balotelli Enigma

Finals of major competitions are often far from memorable matches and tonight’s Euro 2012 final between Italy and Spain may well turn out to be a rather dour affair. A congested midfield, both teams playing possession football for long periods, the fear of losing stifling creative play, and more sideways passes than a Ray Wilkins Appreciation Society benefit tournament. The one reason to tune in is Mario Balotelli.

Of course there is no knowing which of the many faces of Balotelli’s talent will be on show. The Man City forward has been an Etihad enigma this season with fans never knowing if he would be a match winning genius, an arrogant anonymity or a positive liability. His boss Roberto Mancini seemed to exist in a state of perpetual infuriation at the antics of the colossal man-child, on more than one occasion saying that if he played with Balotelli he most certainly would have given him a slap.

All of which is music to the ears of tabloid sport journos who can cast the striker as hero, villain or source of juicy celebrity gossip as needs demand. It is the last of these categories in which we have become accustomed to reading about Balotelli. Powered by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of off-field hi-jinx the Mario rumour mill has been in overdrive since his arrival in the Premier League in August 2010. He has set his house on fire after letting off fireworks indoors, was disciplined by his club for throwing darts at a teammate, and substituted in one match for being allergic to the grass.

It is not helped that Balotelli, who on the pitch can seem the most precocious and egotistical enfant terrible, for the most part eschews the limelight of celebrity. The outcome is that a series of fantastical urban legends have attached themselves to the footballer, who has been in no great hurry to confirm or deny their authenticity. Tales of driving into a women’s prison “just to have a look”, dressing up as Santa to dish out cash in the city centre, and helping a child who was being bullied at school have all added to his aura. (Some of these are cleared up in this slightly surreal footage, where Noel Gallagher interviews Balotelli.) My particular favourite, which I can only hope is true, is the story of Balotelli driving round Manchester in his Maserati. On seeing a black man cruising around in a flash car the local racist police haul over the Man City player, ask him to get out of the vehicle before frisking him. In his back pocket they find a wadge of notes totalling thousands of pounds. Sarcastically they ask, “Why have you got so much money?” Balotelli replies, “Because I am rich.” Priceless.

On the pitch Balotelli can seem distant, arrogant and at times completely uninterested. The question has become what makes this mercurial talent tick? In a series of interviews for the Radio 5 Live programme, The Surreal Mario Balotelli, the former footballer Pat Nevin delved further than most into the life and psychology of the frontman. The child of Ghanaian immigrant parents, Mario Barwuah grew up with three siblings in cramped poverty. It wasn’t long before social services became involved and aged just two he was fostered by the Balotelli’s, a liberal, middle class family.

Was the racism Balotelli faced as a child ameliorated by his new more salubrious surroundings? Possibly, although it is hard to believe that bigotry has left no scars. The closeness to his foster parents certainly shows how important a role they played, and possibly the extent to which his new family not only encouraged his talent but helped insulate him against the worst of the abuse he faced.

Balotelli was one of the first black kids to emerge from the Italian youth system. Giovanni Valenti, Balotelli’s former coach said, “his ability and the colour of his skin provoked a certain amount of jealousy and antipathy, and so I think Mario went through a period growing up isolated because he was black.” As a child he would not celebrate the goals he scored, rather quietly walking back towards the half way line. For Valenti this represented something of a self-defence mechanism, it was the young Mario trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible. The racism has followed him through his career. He was met with racist abuse on his professional debut at the tender age of 15. Roma fans threw bananas; Juventus played games behind closed doors as punishment for the actions of their fans. Only last week a cartoon in an Italian newspaper depicted him as King Kong. They claimed it was intended as a compliment. In the run up to the European Championships Balotelli threatened to walk off the pitch if racism came from the stands. More pointedly he threatened to kill anyone who racially abused him in the street.

It is all too easy to see Balotelli as the stereotypical young footballer, brash and cocky and loaded. Inevitably there is some truth to this. Of course this is a young man (he’s still only 21) with time on his hands and way too much money. But his trademark goal celebrations appear in a different light when you know something of his past. What is perceived as brashness and arrogance seems likely to have been misconstrued. Trapped between his talent and society’s bigotry, Balotelli has created a front allowing him to deal with criticism, discrimination, failure and success. A man of sensitivity and insecurity, as well as phenomenal talent and self-confidence, the paradox of Palermo confronts the world in a state of constant defiance.

In England, and particularly in the blue half of Manchester, the popularity of Balotelli the player is in no doubt. Given his inconsistency and occasional disinterest it might seem odd that he has already achieved iconic status. I would ague that these are precisely the reasons why he is popular. In the world of capitalist sport where reliability is prized above all else, Balotelli bucks the trend. Nobody knows whether he will score a hat-trick or get sent off.

Bertie Mee once said, “Some players may be exciting to watch but, in the end, product is what matters. I want a high level of consistency – a man who can produce it in 35 games out of 42.” Today that pressure is even greater as the rewards are higher, the penalties more severe.  Balotelli is the antithesis of this. When asked to describe Balotelli his sister depicts him as shy and also someone who wants to be the centre of attention. Overwhelmingly she talks about his playfulness. If football has become yet another example of a corporatised homogenous product, Balotelli stands out as someone who looks as though they are actually playing the game, rather than merely competing.

Spain, on the other hand, are the height of technical proficiency: unerring close control, pinpoint passes and continuous movement. It is what has taken them to the pinnacle of world football, where they are unparalleled, unsurpassed and now increasingly (if somewhat surprisingly) unloved. Their style of tika-taka keep ball - patient, cautious, essentially defensive – is beginning to lose its appeal. It is football of the highest quality designed to maximise the possibility of victory, but in doing so it removes those variables that make the game so exciting to watch. There are no twirling wingers, no galloping wing backs, and no Lionel Messi to make it all worthwhile. In contrast to the unpredictability and spontaneity of Balotelli the Spanish look as though they are practicing a discipline. Balotelli plays; Spain win. It is why we will look on with expectant glee at Super Mario tonight, and it is why Jamie Carragher can say that a victory for Spain will be “admired but not loved”.