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How Mario Balotelli charmed us and the game of football
The Italian wonder came and went like a rocket, leaving a trail of devotion and wonder in his wake, for which we should all be grateful.
☞ by Gregory Wakeman in History
There used to be a time when football fans would go down to the pitch to hopefully see themselves in the players who graced the turf. The professional footballers of yesteryear were just like the people on the terraces, or so the argument occasionally went.
They caught the same bus to the games as the fans with their boots draped across their shoulders, bummed a cigarette from a local, and even shared a pint or two after the match whilst discussing where it all went wrong during the previous 90 minutes.
The introduction of SKY, however, in the early 1990s, saw an avalanche of funds pour into the game. These riches have changed the sport for the better, with the Premier League now populated by a hoard of talented British and international players, whose skills and talents have enriched our lives to levels that football fans of old could hardly have imagined.
But to seduce these global players, clubs have also had to increase their wages to astronomical levels. Almost every professional footballer playing in England's highest division now has the potential to be a millionaire by the time they reach the age of 20, and many are used to being pampered and showered with praise at this level of the game.
Some have even affected diva status and have little to nothing in common with the average man or woman who, in effect, pay their wages and enable their endorsements. It is a state of affairs that seemed, not so long ago, to be epitomised in the form of a young and hugely talented Italian who came to dazzle English football a decade or so ago.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the footballing wonder that was and is Mario Balotelli.
A complicated history
After starting his professional football career at Lumezzane and then joining Inter Milan in 2007, Mario Balotelli (pictured) had a strained relationship with its new manager José Mourinho (uh-ho) and then found himself suspended from Inter's first team two years later, following some disciplinary er, problems.
With doubts rising over his career at the club, former Inter coach Roberto Mancini (who had since moved to Manchester City) then gave Balotelli a fresh chance in England. Balotelli, seeing the opportunity before him, took up Mancini's offer and joined Manchester City in 2010, where his performances and off-field activities proved to be enigmatic and unpredictable, including a famous incident when City fans witnessed their newly arrived, £30 million signing riding alongside them on a bus after a visit to the Trafford Centre.
As you do.
But, why would someone who was on so much money do this, when Balotelli could just as easily have bought a new car for the three-mile journey without breaking a financial sweat?
Manchester City fans immediately discovered that they had been graced with a new hero to worship in the cheeky Italian, with Balotelli's antics quickly proving to be so bizarre and charismatic that much of the country's sports media and many of its football fans soon came to view the fiery super-signing as a natural wild child both on and off the pitch.
At this point, it should be noted that any Italian male named Mario could probably be deemed a deity in such circumstances. If only he had decided to work in the plumbing industry by day and save Princesses by night along with his brother Luigi the picture would have been complete.
Perpahs in another life.
Balotelli's immense sporting abilities have, over the years, seen many footballing aficionados label the former Inter Milan striker as one of the most prestigious talents in the 21st century game, with even the ridiculously strict Jose Mourinho concluding that Balotti needed to be kept on the club's books under his stewardship, despite the player's occasional behavioural issues.
Yet it is Balotelli's regular soirees into the ridiculous that have seen him labelled as a genius on more than one occasion over the years. Soon after he arrived in the UK, his personality quickly made him tabloid fodder and, within days of signing, he crashed his car in Manchester. When asked by a police officer on the scene why he was carrying £5,000 in cash Balotteli responded, "Because I am rich."
A colourful journey
Balotelli was also rumoured to have confronted the bully of a young Manchester City fan at a primary school, thrown a dart at a youth team player during a training ground prank, given £1,000 to a homeless man, £500 to a church, bought a round of petrol for everyone at a petrol station, set fire to his bedroom curtains with a firework and broken his curfew on several occasions by visiting a curry house and a strip club, respectively.
It was a colourful period in his life and that of the club.
Balotelli would come to fall out of favour with Mancini after a "training ground bust-up" between the two and his departure from Manchester City and return to Italy with Milan would come a few weeks later (though after only 18 months at Milan, Balotelli would return to the UK Premier League and end up playing for Liverpool).
An unsuccessful season with the Merseyside club would then lead to Balotelli's return to Milan (on loan) and subsequent departure on a free transfer to Ligue 1 side Nice. A spell with fellow French club Marseille followed this move in 2019, when Balotelli returned to Italy once more, joining Brescia, before moving on to Serie B club Monza in 2020.
Mario Balotelli: Seemingly always on the move.
Away from the transfer circuit, one of the most famous tales involving the Italian forward involved his mother asking the player to visit a local shop to purchase a household appliance, only for Balotelli to return with two quad bikes and a trampoline.
Which would all count for nothing if it were not for Balotelli's skills as a professional footballer, confirming that his off-field antics have over the years been equalled, if not bettered, by his idiosyncratic triumphs on it (Balotelli needed to be substituted after twenty minutes during a pre-season friendly with LA Galaxy, for example, when he attempted to score a back-heeled shot). The Italian was also taken off the field after he stated that he was allergic to the type of grass on it and even fought with a bib for 20 minutes as he warmed up, before finally succeeding in placing it over his head.
Balotelli's eccentricities have been a delight for football fans of all ages wherever he has played, and for some, he has brought a passion, humour and charisma to the game that had been badly missing such human qualities for years before he arrived.
If only he had played alongside Jimmy Bullard.
Now that would have been a game worth watching.
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