This Week in Mario Balotelli: The Spirit of a Champion

In which our hero lives out a redemption story without changing much.
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Manchester City’s improbable Premier League title is a story of redemption. A few weeks ago City looked to have blown their chance at the trophy, blowing a sizable lead with a string of middling performances and dropped points. For the squad to end up with ultimate glory, they had to display a great deal of resolve and character. During much of that stretch, they played without enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli. Depending on who you ask, that was a positive rather than a negative. When we last left our hero, he had earned a red card (and really should have been sent off after about 20 minutes) in a 1-0 loss at Arsenal. His manager claimed he’d never play for the club again and essentially deemed him unmanageable. Pundits all over the globe said he wasn’t the kind of player who wins clubs titles.

Yet there was Balotelli on Sunday, sticking with a tough play and laying it off for Kun Aguero to score the title-winning goal in extra time. It was the play of a young man who cared about the result and showed something of himself in the moment. And, on top of that, Balotelli looked pretty good in his 30 minutes as a substitute, taking shots with the chance of making a breakthrough and injecting some amount of creativity at a time when the Citizens looked hopeful for their goals rather than proactive.

In a typical redemption story, we would claim that Balotelli had learned his lesson and proved his mettle as a real live Premier League player. The truth is a little messier, because the other incidents of the day suggest Balotelli is the same person he was when Roberto Mancini momentarily divested himself of their relationship’s responsibilities. When QPR midfielder and self-proclaimed pacifist Joey Barton was sent off in the 55th minute for elbowing Carlos Tevez in the face, Balotelli yelled the Smiths-loving Scouser off the pitch as if he were a fan. Far from being humble or mature, Balotelli acted out like a child. And then, after the match, he told his detractors they now have to shut up:

More importantly, even the nature of Balotelli’s last-minute heroics are not particularly new to his season. In January, he earned and scored the winning penalty in a huge match against then-contenders Tottenham; on the last day of March, he scored two goals — including one of the goals of the BPL season — to reach a poor 3-3 home draw with Sunderland that nevertheless proved to be a huge result given the final standings. There were similar moments throughout the season: scoring the lone goal in a match with Chelsea, setting up other winners, etc. Balotelli was not a flake who scored in meaningless moments during blowouts, but one of the five or ten most positive figures in Manchester City’s season. Without him, they wouldn’t have won.

The upshot of this is that Balotelli didn’t learn anything to come through with the title-clinching assist, because his performance in the match (both on the pitch and on the sidelines) was in keeping with what he did throughout the season. He was, as I’ve said before in this space, a player defined by both good and bad incidents, often in close proximity to each other. There was no real narrative or path, just a set of good moments and bad moments on the way to an ending. It was a comic picaresque, not a bildungsroman.

Due to Balotelli’s role in the title, it’s now virtually impossible to dismiss him. If he’d come on and had no direct influence, the same story about City being better off without him could have applied. If they’d lost the title, that argument would have been even stronger. But for Balotelli to provide the assists and act like an idiot throws the lived reality of his season into sharp relief. He’s a champion, but there’s also something very reckless and stupid about his behavior.

Crucially, though, he cannot be easily cast as a pariah. What Balotelli’s success has proven is that he can be a clutch performer given the right circumstances, the kind of striker capable of Roy Race heroics so long as everyone cuts him enough slack. That’s not to say that he can be plugged into any situation and succeed — it’s hard to imagine Balotelli succeeding any place where strict personal and tactical discipline are next to godliness. The title, even if its finality is an arbitrary construction of the Premier League season, showed simply that this weirdo can be a part of something magical (provided a rich sheikh also sinks more than a billion dollars into the operation. Balotelli could very well become a legendary disaster at some other point in his career, but the success of this year will always persist. Every time a blowhard opines distastefully on a talented enigma and “winning culture,” there will be a counterpoint.

Whether or not we see another season like this one from Balotelli (or anyone else) is a different question altogether. So many events conspired to make his antics and goals compelling — a tight title race, Manchester City’s general identity as immature upstarts in a league of stiff-lipped professionals, a longstanding relationship with his manager, a thrilling conclusion to the season, various red cards, an interview with Noel Gallagher, etc. — that it’s unlikely anything will be truly so shocking next season. On top of that, Balotelli could move to Italy, where not being a prima donna is something of a mark of shame, and if he stays at City his role could be diminished as Sheikh Mansour adds new thoroughbreds to his stable of world-class strikers.

To put it another way, Balotelli will become less interstellar and more familiar than he currently seems. Our responsibility, insofar as we have one at all, is to consider him in full rather than as a prepackaged commodity fit for narratives we concocted decades ago. There was no grand narrative here, no story of a boy overcoming his immaturity to understand the team concept and become a man. All we’re left with, really, is a collection of awesome highlights and personal incidents equally at home in tabloids and cartoons. We could turn them into a coherent story, if we really tried, but that would just rob the Balotelli experience of what made it so damn interesting.

Correction: The piece originally stated that Balotelli escorted Joey Barton off the field like a member of the stadium security force. In truth, that was another player.

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The take away from this season is that when Mancini says "X Player Will Never Play Again", he really means to say "X Player Will Play Again & Make a Significant Contribution."