Mario Balotelli evokes the kind of hero-worship in me that I haven’t experienced since I was a teen poring through the NME and devouring every laconic word whispered by Ian Brown. The 21-year old Italian is a powder keg of brilliance and lunacy, genius and child, a fascinating discordance of extremes that transcends football and takes us into the realms of rock and roll, comedy, soap opera and a psychiatrist’s chair. He is the epitome of the contradictory, multifaceted nature of man that Walt Whitman once celebrated with the following words – “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
Sadly, through a media otherwise starved of anyone of interest to write about in a sport awash with the bland and one-dimensional, we are in real danger of losing football’s most compelling figure, its only punk in a league full of boyband pap.
Today’s newspapers scream with indignation at the revelation that an unmarried young man had sex with an unmarried young woman. It is yet another example of the hysterical, hypocritical nonsense that we truly excel at and should we continue to hound and exaggerate Balotelli’s every action and wave him goodbye to Italy we can all pat ourselves on the back at another job well done. The cycle of how we treat the outspoken or outrageous in this country will once more be nearly complete. First we become enamoured to the point of obsession. Then we demonise.
The vacuum the player will leave in the nation’s column inches and public’s attention can once more be filled with that lovely wholesome Theo Walcott wittering on about his England chances and we can all exhale a sigh of relief, laugh at what a trip it was, switch on Midsomer Murders and be safe and cosy and dull again.
We, we happy few, we band of brothers, separated from the cool lot on the continent by a thin stretch of sea, are a nation too small and small-minded to embrace big personalities. Different is distrusted. Eccentricity is exaggerated into cartoonish acceptability. Complicated grates against our conservative ways.
Outside of sport…well so be it; that’s just who we are and always have been. Despite occasional bursts of flavour such as the manufactured Cool Britannia tag that is trotted out every other generation we remain content to be beholden to the establishment, pomp and ceremony. A posh accent still impresses and intimidates and it is they who decide what exactly is the ‘done thing’.
In sport however…ahh we so need the mavericks and individuals. They provide the entertainment, unpredictability and spark that elevates a contest into a drama.
Yet we belittle each and every one or smother them like Lenny from Of Mice And Men stroking a young girl’s hair.
Snooker is already gone; a lost cause. Now only a spiky barnet is required to be thought of as a character in a game that used to be full of them. The retirement of Freddie Flintoff beckoned in an age of bland cricketers with faint South African accents who speak but say nothing while the tabloids are already pouncing on any interesting tweets from the young, opinionated mind of Rory McIlroy in golf.
It saddens me greatly to write this but the talented Ulsterman is probably better off falling into line or else suffer the fate of all those who preceded him.
The list is long in football alone. There was Best of course, along with Gazza and Cantona and a litany of other dazzling lights that perhaps shone weaker but suffered no fewer. All geniuses in their own unique way and thoroughly entertaining in every way. All persecuted and lampooned by men who probably iron their socks and think anything beyond the missionary position is probably best left to the Dutch.
Even as a City fan I was exhilarated by Cantona’s enigmatic response to the Symons incident at Palace. Here was a player who had just kung-fu t***ted a mouthy fan who had questioned his parentage then followed it by quoting poetry. F***ing brilliant.
The press however – perfectly aware of the overt analogy he was alluding to: seagulls, a trawler, and sardines are hardly encrypted code for journalists, a player and anything of note – displayed their usual disdain for their readers’ intelligence and portrayed the man as stark raving bonkers, as if he’d just brought out a finger puppet he claimed was his wife.
If any single individual epitomises the fusty, humourless intolerance of Little England to personality it was ironically a Scot, namely referee Dougie Smith who booked Paul Gascoigne for having the temerity to pick up his dropped yellow card and brandish it with a grin in the direction of the official. The slump in Gazza’s shoulders at that moment still breaks my heart. It was as if he realised fully in those seconds the futility of it all. For trying to entertain the masses he would always be deemed an enemy of the state. Fun has no place in a system shackled by rules and regulated by stuffed shirts who stink of cigar smoke and Jaguar leather.
And this is the environment that Mario Balotelli is presently plying his trade in. A man of wonderful mercuriality made utterly miserable in a world of old-fashioned conformity. An alien alienated.
It would never happen of course but the only conceivable way that Mario will ever experience contentment on these shores is if he buckled under to our conventional, starchy ways and became a tow-the-line, butter-wouldn’t-melt poster boy like Rooney, Lamps or Stevie G. If he additionally attained British citizenship he could then apparently do what the hell he liked.
As it is he will most likely return to Italy and when we endure yet another dull summary of another dull goal from another dull player – “Yeah Baley put me through with a great ball to be fair. I got my toe on it and I was lucky enough to see it go in” – we will greatly miss what we so frenziedly drove away.