I had a mate at junior school who would lick anything for a Chewit. Aside from keeping him from writing in to Jim’ll Fix It, our role was mostly to find increasingly high intensity items from him to slap his tongue against. There is broad consensus that his three greatest triumphs were 1. The lollipop lady’s lollipop, 2. A moving bike tyre, 3. A duck’s face.
He was, on reflection, an odd child. But he was a good pal and just went about the world in a slightly different way to the rest of us. The things that confused or bored or frightened us, he simply licked.
Mario Balotelli inspires similar feelings in me to my filthy tongued friend. I recognise that he’s not perfect, but find his imperfections, broadly, rather endearing.
I also happen to believe that as players with bad reputations go, he can consider his to be (slightly) harshly acquired. After all, what has he ever done that is truly appalling? Recently we have seen Bastia striker Brandao linger like a villain in the tunnel only to leap out, plant his Brazil nut into Thiago Motta’s nose and then run away. We have also seen man-muncher, occasional racist, handshake refuser and proverbial time-bomb Luis Suarez back in the headlines having been (rightly, I suppose) allowed to train with his new team.
Balotelli isn’t a malicious thug or a calculating cheat. He isn’t a ‘nasty piece of work’ or a bigot. He has been guilty of some pretty appalling challenges, but he’s certainly not the only member of the ‘Studs Up Senate’. No, most of the unenviable reputation he has amassed has been through tales, real or legendary, of his off field antics. Whether it’s dressing as Santa and handing out money on the streets or nearly burning down his own house with an impromptu indoor fireworks display, the myths have overtaken the man – or more accurately the sportsman.
In 2011 Man City’s Mario Balotelli set fireworks off in his flat. He then took part in a firework safety campaign pic.twitter.com/Mk9j5HzYTu
— Stupid Sport Moments (@StupidSports) December 14, 2013
What seems to be the only genuine criticism you can level at Balotelli is that his commitment to the game isn’t always rock solid. Upset him, move him from his favoured position, question what he’s doing and it’s quite likely he will switch off.
However, one of the knobbliest sticks with which he is often beaten is that even Jose Mourinho couldn’t get the best out of him. What is often forgotten is that Mourinho is:
a.) a pragmatist who will clinically assess the costs and benefits of spending time to develop a player’s character (and give up only when he believes the effort is not worth the return).
b.) Mourinho himself is difficult, moody and impatient. Jose can get the best out of players who still believe that ‘best’ is still an ambition. Mario, I suspect, believes he might be already there.
But Brendan Rodgers is a different character and buoyed by the ultimately terrible rehabilitation of Luis Suarez, he may feel that he can finally be the one to unlock Balotelli’s obvious promise.
Balotelli certainly isn’t the kind of striker-in-perpetual-motion that Rodgers seems to prefer. But he is the muscular, bullying forward that they are starting to realise is a chink in the Anfield armour. But it is the Daniel Sturridge transformation rather than the Suarez one that most suggests Rodgers is the man for Mario, with many wiser heads than me already pointing to how Rodgers successfully challenged Sturridge to become the player he clearly already believed he was.
Raised on the days of gun-toting lunatic Faustino Asprilla at Newcastle, I’m a sucker for a ‘character’ in football and I do find Balotelli wildly entertaining. But being a character quickly becomes tired if all we see is clowning and not a lot of quality. I for one hope this is the move that, employing a phrase that Jamie Redknapp probably has tattooed on his ball bag, will help Balotelli ‘kick on’. I’d hate for him to end up like Nicolas Anelka.
And by that I mean a twat.