Mario Balotelli – The untold saga
Mario Balotelli overcame many battles and reached a position from where he could have become a legend. Yet, he is struggling today to find his true place. Debopam Roy wonders if this is another case of talent gone wrong.
The origin of a superhero sets the parameters for his/her success. Inevitably, it involves challenges that makes the protagonist gain new strength to win over the world. From that perspective, Mario Balotelli’s story has no equal. Given up to be brought up by foster parents Silvia and Francesco when he was two, Mario has overcome personal loss, racial abuse, and some of the most scything defenders to rise to stardom. Three-time Serie A winner, Coppa Italia and Super cups, a Premier League medal, and even a Champions League winner medal while still being a teenager—not many can match that. In 2010, he was voted the Golden Boy in European football—an acknowledgement of his potential. Internationally, a meteoric rise saw him as the primary striker in Italy’s unexpected march into the finals of the 2012 European Championship. That, however, was the last of it. In the last three years, he has played for three clubs, shuttling between Italy and England, lost his mojo of scoring from penalties (after scoring the first 21 penalties of his professional life), and , has been irregular with the Italian national team. A third transfer may be on the cards, but at 25, Mario is suddenly at the crossroads where no top club is willing to bet on him.
Beginning of the end: second half of 2012
It was the summer of 2012, when, against all odds, Mario Balotelli took Italy to the finals of the European Championship. He was joint top scorer of the tournament. He scored probably the goal of the tournament in the semi-final against Germany, and gave another of his iconic poses.
He was subjected to racial abuse yet, managed to be selected for the Team of the Tournament. A very typical Mario tournament. However, he is now in the third season of his big money move to Manchester City. His club won the league on the last day (where he has provided the assist in the 94th minute). It was the team’s first title since 1967–68. Mario on theis also baiting tabloids by doing things like setting up fireworks at his house and fighting with his teammates, Jerome Boateng and Micah Richards. Club manager Roberto Mancini is infuriated with his behaviour.
A better and brighter season awaits him.
And then, Mario has a shocking half season. 20 appearances across competitions and all of three goals and an equal number of yellow cards. That is pittance when compared to his 17 goals in 32 appearances in the previous season. This is also coupled with run-ins with the media or the manager, leading to the club being taken to a tribunal and missing 11 games in the half season.
It seems that everyone is relieved when a move to Milan (he was a fan of Milan as a child) materializes.
Reboot #1: The Milan experiment—2013–14
Mario’s arrival at Milan was revolutionary. The club had sold off its most prized assets. One-time fan favourite and Barbara Berlusconi’s arm candy, Alexandre Pato, had been sold off to get the money for Mario’s arrival. It was thought that he, along with Stephan el Shaarawy (who had already scored 18 goals in the season) would be the forerunner of new Milan. Mario was the new Ibra for the Milanisti—top forward who had switched over from hated rivals Inter. On top of that, he was young, Italian, and a fan of the club.
Mario lived up to all of that in his first six months—banging in 12 goals in 13 appearances. Milan managed to scrape through into the Champions League places thanks to his goals. However, ironically the partnership with Shaarawy never materialized, with the Pharaoh adding only one more goal for the season.
The second season was, once again, supposed to be where Mario would become the messiah of Milan and take the team to new glory. However, disciplinary issues and injuries meant that he managed only 18 goals in 41 matches. That’s a respectable figure for a mid-table club, but woefully inadequate for a club fighting on three fronts (including Europe). It is also a far cry from the dizzying figure of his spell in his initial six months.
Eventually, the Milan hierarchy realized what Mario really was. A spoilt brat who could not be trusted to lead the club. Someone like Matt de Sciglio was a far better role model than Mario. Trusting the rejuvenation of a club like Milan with Mario was not sound. The top brass, who were so enamoured with the previous poster boy—Alex Pato (so much so that they had once stopped his sale after agreeing terms with PSG), had decidedly a swift fallout with his antics and disciplinary issues. Mario was unceremoniously dumped for barely a profit. The vision of a revival at a club Mario had supported as a boy was over. A return to Premier League was thought to be the best way forward.
Reboot #2: The Liverpool misadventure—2014–2015
Liverpool was theoretically the best club in the Premier League for Mario to get into. They had punched above their weight to return to the Champions League, having missed out winning narrowly. There was definite space for a striker in a club competing on multiple fronts. Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho were the starters, but Mario was an excellent addition to augment the focal point. Liverpool had made a solid gain in Coutinho, who was a reject from Inter and became a world class player at Anfield. They thought Mario would be a similar player.
It was a disaster for both parties in 2014. After a promising start, Liverpool fell away to finish sixth. Mario had his worst season ever. He managed just a goal in four different competitions—which included one goal in 16 league matches. Unlike his starts in the previous two clubs, he didn’t have a honeymoon period. It was an overall catastrophe. In all, he scored four goals and saw seven yellow cards in 28 matches. Add to that his antics, which included an Instagram post that cost him £25,000 in fine and a match ban.
The season was riddled with such injuries and suspensions. By the end of it, Liverpool were sure that they wanted to get rid of Mario at any cost. The problem was finding a buyer.
National Team agony—since Euro 2012
Euro 2012 was supposed to make Mario the predominant striker of new age Italy. The Azzurri depended on him for world cup qualification. He didn’t disappoint. He scored five goals, was the top scorer for Italy, and led it to the World Cup. He also scored and assisted his way to take Italy to the semifinals in the Confederations Cup. However, his absence in the next two matches saw Italy finish third in the tournament. He even scored the winner in his first Word Cup match against England. And that was that for Mario and for Azzurri. Italy lost the next two matches, and was bumped out at the group stages for the second consecutive time. Mario never got to play for Italy again. Manager Antonio Conte has trusted next-generation strikers (Ciro Immobile and Manolo Gabbiadini), late bloomers (Graziano Pelle), and even old timers (Alessandro Matri). But Mario has been conspicuous by his absence. A poor season with Liverpool hasn’t helped, and Mario desperately needs a solid season to get back in shape for a year that will lead up to the Euro Cup in France.
So, where does Mario go from here? Two stints at the Premier League have shown how they foster his spirit of childish pranks. Two stints at Milanese clubs have shown how deeply they distrust him. Add on the factors of race and his usual disciplinary issues. Clubs in Italy, who once would have queued up to get his signature, have outright refused to take him on from Liverpool. Even so-called mid-tier clubs like Fiorentina and Lazio have expressed their inability to invest in him. The Viola fans went so far as to say that Mario is a man without honour. His stints across the Milan divide has actually seen the clubs unite in their hurry to dispose of him. Mario has scored goals, but has also been a poster boy for chaos. His relation with his club mates has hardly been one of great bonding. It’s only natural that fans of clubs would be wary of him.
At 25, Mario Balotelli is an unwanted man—cast aside from national team and getting pushed around clubs with no fixed destination. In a way, he embodies another enfant terrible of Italian football—Antonio Cassano. But Cassano has had two great clubs where he has flourished—Sampdoria and Parma. Mario needs that. He needs a club where he can be the main man. As he enters his peak footballing years, it would be foolhardy not to try him out as a bargain buy. But will Mario go to a club that has no realistic chance of finishing at the top? I believe that it would actually be a good career move. It’s probably time for him to have one more move and then see if he can perform consistently.
Mario is a showman—a modern day rockstar. But he would do far better to also be remembered for his footballing achievements along with the non-footballing ones. With that in mind, one hopes that Mario decides to move to an Italian club, plays a full season, and ensures we get back the Super Mario that we all have seen. The talent is all there. All it needs is encouragement and nourishment. The razzmatazz of fast lane would never leave Mario. But the performances he can produce, the sheer brilliance of his skills can match his onetime mentor Zlatan.
…. And the Last Last Words
We all know by now that Mario has gone back to where it all started… to go wrong. Milan holds its breath for the return of his mercurial son. Only good thing about the move is that there is no expectation at all. It won’t make the headlines if Balotelli fails to deliver there. It will still make one every time he loses his mind but that is also somewhat expected, if not acceptable, by now. Will Super Mario finally become the superstar he always wanted to be? Or will he create some new lows for himself, the club and the country? Only time will tell. Till then, Go Mario!!!