This Week in Mario Balotelli: A Man in Full

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Only a special athlete can act like a fuckup and not have it hurt his team. Such was the case two Fridays ago, when Mario Balotelli went out to a Liverpool strip club less than 36 hours before their Saturday home match against Bolton, in violation of club rules, and nevertheless scored the clinching goal in the 2-0 victory. Despite his key role in the contest, Balotelli was fined a week’s wages, presumably more for show than in the hopes that it would curtail his behavior.

Balotelli apologized, but focused more on what he’d done to his girlfriend Rafaella Fico, to whom he’d proclaimed his love in a goal-celebration t-shirt a week earlier. Fico had been in the news earlier in the week, too, when Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini remarked that marriage could do Mario some good. Apparently no one told him that Ms. Fico was one of Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga bunga” girls and once tried to auction off her virginity — not exactly a woman content to welcome her husband home with freshly prepared pasta after a long day at the training ground.

In The Guardian, Barney Ronay cried “bullshit” on all the attempts to domesticate Balotelli:

Two things stand out from this. First, Balotelli isn't getting married anyway. And second, perhaps he doesn't need curing at all. [...]

[T]his freewheeling Balotelli is now the main attraction, an unignorable intersection of pure talent and coy extroversion. Perhaps the same qualities that make his manager yearn for mummification within the bonds of marital drudgery are exactly what this early-model City need: a fearless, truculent, super-cool striking figurehead, a sky-blue Cantona, the player fans of every other club can secretly covet. [...]

[I]t is Balotelli who has humanised the City project, offering a sense of something unstyled and spontaneous even within the annihilating mid-term certainties of carbon-dollar success. It is, for now, a marriage made in heaven.

It’s a strong argument I tend to agree with; to decry Balotelli as a loose cannon ignores the high quality of his play. However, Ronay’s consideration turns Mario into another cliche, that of the borderline-crazy athlete who nevertheless gives his team a dangerous edge and saves them from the trap of winning with no soul. Everyone remembers Eric Cantona and Dennis Rodman, but the cliche existed in sports movies like Major League before them. Change a few of the terms of this persona, and Balotelli would be peeling pieces of clothing off a cardboard cutout of Sheikh Mansour every time the Citizens took three points.

Last Monday, Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that Mad Men is a great show because it presents people in all their contradictions, eschewing standard TV psychology for a more observational approach to its characters. While it might seem ridiculous to compare Balotelli to the characters of a fictional drama, the sporting press typically turns athletes into the same sorts of identifiable types that populate most TV series. Better than anyone else, Balotelli acts in such heightened contradictions that it becomes impossible to put him into any one readymade category. He gets kicked out of a mall, but it’s only for wearing a hood (against many businesses’ policies in Britain, if you can believe it), and he acts friendly to the security staff on his way out. He acts disgracefully in a match and wins it for his team during stoppage time. He does a 14-minute interview with Noel Gallagher (embedded at the top of this post, as well), Manchester’s true arrogance leader, and makes it seem as if the two could watch a match together without incident.

There are times when Balotelli seems to have become a parody of himself, but the majority of his incidents defy easy description. The only way to explain him well is to say that he’s his own person. He suggests that, if we afforded other athletes the same luxury, we might actually get to know them.

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