Tuesday, January 29, 2013
City bid arrivederci to Super Mario
At the last, Mario Balotelli succeeded in becoming something he never was in two-and-a-half surreal seasons in Manchester: predictable. A drawn-out saga came to the conclusion that long seemed likely - despite denials from Manchester City and contradictory comments from AC Milan - with the Serie A club's confirmation that Balotelli will join them on Wednesday.
The player Milan's owner Silvio Berlusconi had called a "bad apple" was clearly ripe for picking. Roberto Mancini, having promised to give Balotelli "another 100 chances" following their training-ground scuffle earlier this month, actually only used him twice more: a substitute appearance against Watford and a blink-and-you-missed-it-cameo at Arsenal marked his final sightings in sky blue.
For many, he was last spotted in the advent calendar videos posted on City's website, arguing he could not cut Christmas wrapping paper because he is left-handed. "No wonder everyone thinks you're daft, Mario," said Carlos Tevez, the rehabilitated rebel who was trying to show him how to do it. That, perhaps, is Balotelli, the man who never learned. That was why Mancini ran out of his patience with his protégé, his frustration apparent as his complaints became public. While the manager became careful not to criticise Tevez, he was increasingly outspoken about Balotelli. "He can't continue to throw his quality out of the window," Mancini said after December's derby defeat, his compatriot's final start.
It was not all Balotelli threw out of the window - aiming a dart at youth-team players contributed to his growing reputation for causing mayhem. There was the time, 36 hours before a Manchester derby, where the decision to set off fireworks in his bathroom backfired; the occasion he was reprimanded for wandering around the grounds of a women's prison; the allergic reaction to grass he suffered in a Europa League game; his inexplicable inability to put a bib on.
Despite the four red cards in his City career and his altercation with Mancini, he was not malicious as much as simply uncontrollable. Neither his footballing father, Mancini, nor the mother who adopted him knew quite what to expect; Silvia Balotelli once sent Mario out to buy an iron only for him to return with a giant trampoline. Balotelli is capable of behaving perfectly - the calm in a chaotic life appears to come from converting high-pressure penalties and, on a club visit to a children's ward in a hospital, he proved far more of a natural than some of his stand-offish team-mates - but trusting him proved difficult.
As injuries, illness and Mancini's preference for Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko and Tevez kept him out of the team, the only consistency he displayed was a constant presence in the headlines. "For two years, the first question [in a press conference] is always [about] Mario," Mancini said. Why always him? Balotelli wrote his own epitaph on a T-shirt. This season, however, it was almost never him, or at least not on the scoresheet, anyway.
His last truly decisive display, a match to illustrate the combination of physical strength and technical ability that Mancini valued so highly, was the Euro 2012 semi-final when Balotelli eliminated a fancied Germany team.
It provided a reminder that his destructive powers extended beyond damaging bathrooms and sports cars. The other of the twin highlights of his career had certain similarities when another traditional giant was humbled after a Balotelli brace. The 6-1 defeat of Manchester United in October 2011 belongs among City's greatest games and a purposeful, powerful Balotelli was its outstanding player.
Sitting in Old Trafford's media theatre afterwards, Mancini suggested Balotelli had the potential to rank alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as one of the world's finest footballers. He was already, he seemed to say, in the top five. Twelve months later, he was only City's fourth-choice striker.
Then, however, on a run of nine goals in ten games, Balotelli hinted at an on-pitch reliability to complement his off-field idiosyncrasies. Defiantly different, he seemed to epitomise City with the madness of their past and the quality of their present in one, eccentric package.
Fast forward 15 months and he has rarely threatened to ape the reliability of Aguero and Robin van Persie, let alone Messi and Ronaldo. If anything, he has regressed since Euro 2012, the image of the eternal adolescent crystallised even as he became a father. The sense is that many of the City fans who idolised him are now resigned to his exit; some, perhaps, even welcome it.
Outsiders have long branded Balotelli Mancini's folly. Yet while City's time as a moneyed force has contained many an expensive mistake - Robinho, Roque Santa Cruz, Wayne Bridge, Jo - Balotelli does not belong among them. While the numbers barely scratch the surface of his story, a return of 30 goals in 49 starts, plus a further 31 appearances from the bench, is certainly respectable.
More importantly, his contributions, though sporadic, had a huge impact on City history. Balotelli was the man of the match in the 2011 FA Cup final, when the 35-year wait for silverware was ended; he supplied the pass for Aguero's title-winning goal 12 months later. While he was ultimately infuriating and exasperating too often for his own good, he could also be devastating.