Like so many men before him, Mario Balotelli has just discovered that when it comes to ‘characters’ in football, we haven’t got a clue what we want. We yearn for them, we demand them, we lament the lack of them in our game, but as soon as we get one and he does something stupid, we howl at the moon for their immediate expulsion. Dion Fanning wrote passionately about the character assassination of Joey Barton on Sunday, just hours before Balotelli generously barged the QPR midfielder out of the way and took his place as this week’s public piñata. One minute you’re a quirky rogue, the next you’re an enemy of football.
The journey from mad to bad, or from Nero to zero if you will, can be sped up dramatically if you do something extremely rash, like, say, coming within inches of snapping Alex Song like an Airfix model. Regardless of how much of a character you are, that kind of thing can really turn people against you.
In character terms, of course, Balotelli is completely off the chart. There is good, in that he has given lots of money to tramps, and there is bad, in that he has given lots of darts to youth team players, pointy end first. He is brave, with spot-kicks so cool that they don’t even play by their own rules, and he is easily distracted, having once played with his iPad while sat on the bench. In fact, Balotelli isn’t just a character, he’s an entire sodding cast list. If the technology existed, you could stick a USB plug up his nose and download an entire sitcom from his cerebral cortex. But we’ve been here before, haven’t we?
Six or seven years ago, I tried to sell an interview, a nice interview, with Paul Gascoigne to one of those chirpy boob-filled magazines for young men. “Sorry, we’ll have to give that a miss,” they said. “Most of our readers are too young to remember him as player. They just think he’s a sad old drunk in a tracksuit.”
Gascoigne, like Balotelli, was wonderfully gifted and deeply flawed, capable of great acts of generosity and awe-inspiring moments of self-destruction. But the real tragedy was that no-one realised his chaotic behaviour was, in part, caused by mental illness. Gascoigne, after innumerable episodes, is now bravely battling his demons, but how many of his problems were exacerbated, not by the media, who hounded him everywhere for years, constantly and publicly judging him, but by the rest of us, who were fuelling the pursuit with our consumption?
Balotelli did not have the smoothest of upbringings. Adopted at the age of three, he has told reporters that his natural parents showed no interest in him until he became famous, something they strenuously deny. Put those deep-set feelings of rejection together with a childhood described as ‘troubled’, throw in a constant battle against racism, notably when he represented his country and was met with monkey noises, and then add the scrutiny of a life in the public eye and it’s hardly surprising that he’s, well, a little odd. To what degree he is odd, only he and his doctor will know, but it should give us pause for thought.
Balotelli’s challenge on Song was appalling. It was late, it was high and it could have ended the Arsenal midfielder’s career. But, as Rory Smith of The Times pointed out on Twitter, was it really worthy of the hyperbolic flood of outrage that followed? And was Balotelli’s performance really so wretched that it alone could be blamed for the collapse of Manchester City’s title bid, as it has been this weekend on various media outlets?
I’ve enjoyed Balotelli’s antics as much as anyone, and I was one of many thousands who condemned his tackle on Twitter, announcing with perhaps unnecessary solemnity that there was nothing ‘remotely amusing’ about it, but even I’m starting to feel a little uneasy now. He’s 21 years old with obvious behavioural problems, living under the microscope in a foreign country and all of a sudden, as one, everyone has turned on him. I sincerely hope that he has someone he trusts who can put last weekend in perspective and look after him. He is a magnificent footballer and, if all parties learn from Gascoigne’s troubles, that’s what I want younger readers to know him for twenty years down the line.