13 December ~ Although injury and suspension have meant Mario Balotelli has appeared for Manchester City only seven times since arriving in August, his presence in England continues to generate column inches. And while some of these have concentrated on his impact in the City shirt, just as many have been devoted to scrutinising his behaviour, searching for glimpses of the “erratic” character for which he has become infamous. Admittedly, Balotelli has often provided the media with ammunition for stories of this type.
The end of his career at Inter was notable for his fractious relationship with Jose Mourinho, who found him difficult to control, and for a running conflict with the club’s supporters, who were angered by a series of poor performances and gestures they considered disrespectful. The most notable of these involved the striker’s appearance on Italian television wearing an AC Milan shirt. In September, he compounded his reputation for eccentricity by driving into a women’s prison in Italy, claiming he simply wanted to see what it was like. He didn’t get far, however, as the prison officers on duty at the time quickly turned him away on the grounds of his clearly being Mario Balotelli.
While he might have hoped that moving to a new country would offer a fresh start, his notoriety has proved persistent, and his mildest contraventions and idiosyncrasies are scoured for evidence with which to condemn him to the Asylum for the Criminally Maverick and Continental. His sending off for engaging in a pointless tangle with West Brom’s Youssuf Mulumbu prompted one broadsheet columnist to employ the “box of frogs” analogy (apparently now a recognised psychiatric marker) to declare him mad, while his pronouncements about wishing to be reunited with former strike partner Zlatan Ibrahimovic have led to speculation over how long he will last at Eastlands.
More recently, Balotelli’s training-ground tussle with Jerome Boateng – despite being even shorter and less dignified than the Haye-Harrison fight – was leapt on as further proof of his inflammatory character. Even his muted goal “celebrations”, in which he directs a recriminatory glare at whoever has supplied him with the ball, are examined for indications of his mental state.
Balotelli, however, has always claimed to be confused by his infamy and it’s not hard to see why. Though he sometimes exasperates supporters and staff of the clubs he plays for, he is entitled to feel aggrieved at the treatment he received from some fans in Italy, and his charge sheet suggests less that of a hellraiser bent on destruction than a mildly eccentric young footballer who forgot to turn up for media training. The crime of which he is most frequently guilty is refusing to disguise what he thinks, yet he often attracts more condemnation than players who have committed serious offences. He has even described himself as “stupid” for continuing to mix with people he considers to be a bad influence – in the case of most footballers, it would be this career-ending display of self-awareness that prompted questions about mental stability.
And even if Balotelli does build on his bust-up with Boateng and starts to display consistent evidence of the “madness” we were shriekingly promised on his arrival, it might not be an entirely bad thing. Although it may frustrate those involved with Manchester City, that club has come to be regarded by neutrals as increasingly charmless – a multinational enterprise gripped by a fear-driven obsession with success, at the altar of which almost anything will be sacrificed. Anarchy, entertainment, even personality, are in short supply. But who knows? The sight of one of their star players attempting to scale the perimeter wall of Strangeways might be just what neutrals need to rediscover some affection for City. Ed Wilson