Balotelli: self-made genius, not self-destructing maniac

We're misunderstanding the Italian striker

By Musa Okwonga 23/06/2012 17:56

As England prepare to take on Italy in the quarter finals of the European Championships, Musa Okwonga says it's time to reassass Mario Balotelli


Mario BalotelliOne of the newspapers this weekend published a Mario Balotelli bingo. Readers were invited to mark off phrases as the television commentators spew them out during the quarter final. They include: Jekyll and Hyde; infuriating; clinically insane; no doubting his talent.


The same cliches cling to the Italian striker in Poland and the Ukraine as at Eastlands.  Everyone knows that his brilliance – the searing volleys, the last-minute penalties dispatched with nerveless cool – is undermined and threatened by a consistent lack of discipline that will stop him, at still only 21, from fulfilling his potential. 


"It is remarkable that a truly visceral spirit ... has ascended to the point where he has become a focal point of his nation’s hopes"


On the face of it, this seems a reasonable analysis: he has been dismissed in the Premier League on three occasions since his arrival in England, which is the joint-most (alongside Sunderland pair Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner) in that period.  But the truth is that far from criticising him for self-destructing, we should praise him for achieving against all the odds.


In his football and his life, Balotelli resembles no one more than Paul Gascoigne. 


The late Sir Bobby Robson once said that people should not think of Gascoigne so much as someone who underachieved, but someone who achieved a great deal despite being the person that he was.


So I think it is with Balotelli.  It is remarkable that a truly visceral spirit, whom even Jose Mourinho found impossible to control at Inter Milan, has ascended to the point where he has become a focal point of his nation’s hopes. 


 "It is this very unpredictability which makes him so decisive."


He is certainly worth the risk.  According to Opta, when measured against players who had scored eight goals or more in last year’s Premier League, Balotelli had the second-lowest number of minutes per goal (101.6), behind only Newcastle United’s irrepressible Papiss Demba Cisse (85.6).  Balotelli was dropped for the final few games of City’s title run-in, following a rash, Gazza-style red card against Arsenal at the Emirates; but it was he as much as anyone who had kept them in contention for the championship.


No-one knows what Balotelli is going to do against England – least of all, one suspects, the man himself.  Yet it is this very unpredictability which makes him so decisive. Only a true maverick, for example, could have contrived the superb sidefooted finish to open City’s 6-1 rout of United at Old Trafford.  His current boss Roberto Mancini, whilst warning him not to be “a pain in the a***” in Sunday’s match, believes that he should start. 


Worryingly for England, given Balotelli’s superb recent strike against Ireland, there is every indication that this most combustible of strikers is ready to catch fire.


Musa Okwonga is a poet, musician, football writer and social commentator, you can follow him on Twitter @Okwonga



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