by Daisy Cutter
The analogy may be to a sixth-form standard but it’s hard not to compare Mario Balotelli’s all-too-brief stopover to our shores as a firework; a fizzing, eruptive, exuberant Roman candle not flared through a bathroom window but ignited across our dull English skies.
To a fusty old nation that supposedly celebrates eccentricity he was a figure utterly beyond our comprehension; a beautiful black teen who would have dripped with the arrogance of a deity if he could be so bothered as to actually break sweat.
Instead he brooded, sauntered and swaggered on our pitches, boned a succession of blondes, and idled his latest supercar through Moss Side with a walletful of cash, his stone-cold belief that he was blessed with a supernatural talent entombed in a mind that perplexed the mainstream and greatly amused the rest.
To challenge conformity and stretch the starchy fabric of Blighty it is usually necessary to take to the streets with sticks and rocks. Balotelli merely lifted up his shirt, stood still, glared, and asked a simple question, and as he did so a frenzied mania grew around him. Myths akin to folklore spread from hamlet to hamlet whilst the tabloids appeased our conservative, sex-with-our-socks-on ways by turning football’s most compelling figure for a generation – our only punk in a league of boyband pap – into a cartoon. But as with all rare creatures our fascination with the mercurial soon enough became smothering – like Lenny from Of Mice And Men stroking a young girl’s hair – and Mario Balotelli became an alien alienated.
As with Cantona and Gazza before him first we are enamoured to the point of obsession. Then we demonise.
But it was not always us. Its one thing to become an enemy of the state – the legions of Sandra and Clives who scoff over their cornflakes at the latest, media-exaggerated ‘madcap antic’ – but it’s quite another to piss off the meat and potato supporter. Their tolerance to the pampered, multi-millionaire superstars of today is commendable in the extreme considering how sharply the modern game conflicts with their traditional idylls. But at the very least a compromise must be reached with application put in to even slightly justify the exorbitant wages. Such basic application was beneath Balo: he knew the gifts he possessed and only deigned to hint at them when in a generous mood. Whereas Cantona and Gazza produced in spades Balotelli sulked, stropped and indulged in lazy backheels into an opponent’s legs. How apt that one of his most iconic moments – the cool-as-f*** close-ranger against Norwich – was a shrug of his shoulder.
With the general public believing any far-fetched nonsense as fact and his own kind – football folk – now exasperated too far at his insouciance there left only his loco parentis Mancini fighting his corner. Until even the fiery City boss fought his prodigy in a training ground bust-up that brought yet more unwanted headlines and the game was royally up.
But that still left me, and despite reading nothing but vitriol in the past 24 hours from the haters who will miss the madness infinitely more than they realise, I’m convinced I’m not alone.
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 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.”
In a sport awash with the bland and one-dimensional he was excitement and attitude writ large. And I f***ing loved him for that.
To those who are glad to see the back of him not for football reasons but because the accompanying circus routinely prompted a scowl – you are a 21st century string-vest, watching Ziggy Stardust explode the minds of a generation on a black and white telly and grumpily enquiring “Is he some kind of puff or what?” You are only able to find exhilaration in the familiar and it so rarely dwells there.
To the others who view the past two and a half years as a waste of talent and promise your reasoning undeniably has substance but though the magic was sporadic what magic it was.
A man of the match performance in Manchester City’s first cup final in living memory, a goal celebration that will be forever cherished, and setting up a goal back in May that reduced me and my kin to blub out a lifetime of hurt.
As unsavoury a thought as this is, such moments outweigh a whole career of graft and grit from any player who bleeds the hue of his shirt.
Yet, in keeping with the contradictions that surround the man and myth, as much as I love Mario I’m not sorry to see him leave. In recent months the enigma had become a Where’s Wally with even the devilment absent from his few cameo appearances.
Maybe it’s not that though. Maybe it’s because you should always walk away from a lit firework. Watch it fizz and crackle across the sky and head back to normality, smiling as you go.