On the face of it, Mario Balotelli is exactly the type of player I, as a thoroughbred American sports fan, should hate: an aloof, cold, joyless sourpuss who even at twenty years old possesses the trappings of a career mercenary. When Super Mario scores, he celebrates with the excitement one expresses when their doctor starts throwing around words like “terminal” or “malignant” or “herpes.”
He can be both inscrutable and excessively candid, as evidenced by his incredibly honest assessment of his first season in England after turning in a Man of the Match performance which lifted Manchester City to its first grip on hardware in forty painful years. His talent is as limitless as his ability to shock and offend stodgy football pundits who took no time in branding him an embarrassment to the sport after an audacious (understatement)…perhaps woefully misguided (closer)…OK borderline psychotic (BINGO) backheel shot attempt during a preseason friendly which did not hit the target.
Taylor Twellman’s comments on ESPN’s broadcast immediately smacked me as remiscient of Joe Buck’s infamous righteous indignation at Randy Moss’ pantomooning Packers fans after scoring a touchdown in a playoff game. Twellman stated that Mario was a disgrace and could not be counted on to perform in big games. This is funny for a few reasons, not least of which is Twellman’s residency on American soccer’s own Buffalo Bills, losing several title games including one at home in New England. Balotelli’s FA Cup winner’s medal and youth fly directly in the face of Twellman’s criticism, and his implication that a truly meaningless match against the LA Galaxy has any bearing on Balotelli’s ability to perform in the EPL as well as the Champions League this season or any other season is laughable at best.
For my money, sports need real characters, especially villains to balance all the hero worship, and I’d always rather my villain perpetrate his villainy on the field (Reggie Miller) as opposed to off (Mike Tyson, Ray Lewis, Michael Vick), and at the very least mostly non-violently (Dennis Rodman). The history of professional sports is littered with brash, cocky upstarts who challenge preconceived notions of how an athlete should behave: from Muhammad Ali to Joe Namath, Pete Rose (not a great example) all the way up to Gazza or Eric Cantona.
And while I can’t really wrap my head around or speak with any authority about being African-born nor raised in Italy by Italians, the combination has undoubtedly created a highly entertaining and intriguing brand of crazy/genius. His blowup on the sidelines at Roberto Mancini, while inappropriately public, can be seen more as a father/son type clash as opposed to just another simple tale of a spoiled athlete throwing a tantrum (see Owens, Terrell). After being marginalized at Inter Milan by Jose Mourinho, Balotelli elected to leave for City to follow Mancini, a man he regards as a father figure. Additionally, if he really believed he had been whistled for offsides anyway, than the criticism of Balotelli becomes even thinner, and his indignation at being swiftly substituted makes much more sense. However, even as an ardent Balotelli fan, I’m not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt in this case, either.
The issue that most people lose sight of is one of our absolute favorite aspects and joys of football: talking about football. If nothing else, Balotelli is an excellent topic of football conversation. He is a genuine heel in a world of purported babyfaces. The scandals regarding personal conduct in the EPL, especially those involving locker room betrayal, can no longer remain hidden despite the best PR efforts. Captains of championship teams ought to be revered, yet equally shameless and shameful actions can’t completely sway public opinions far enough to say, “This guy is just a bad person.” It really is a shame when a player we just don’t understand is demonized when there are no shortage of plain terrible human beings plying their trade in the EPL (see FC, Chelsea).
At just twenty-one years old when this year’s campaign begins, his eccentricities have a decade to bloom, and for my part I cannot wait to see what Super Mario’s future holds.