The Barclay's Premier League season is upon us once again, and so stories of Mario Balotelli's failures and triumphs will inundate the sporting press like so many have over these past few years. Just a few months after Manchester City gaffer Roberto Mancini claimed that Balotelli would never play for the club and then played him in key moments of the title-clinching game, he's back in sky blue, ready to help the club to a repeat Premiership title and presumably boost his own mutating celebrity profile, as well. A personalized celebration in FIFA 13 is not enough.
Balotelli didn't start Sunday's season opener against newly promoted Southampton, but he did have an impact after coming on in the 72nd minute, holding the ball and laying off a pass for fellow substitute Edin Dzeko for a game-tying goal. It was a nice moment for the Italian, though not necessarily a sign of sure playing time in coming matches.
That's not to say Balotelli didn't receive attention on the day, because before the match he stole the lens of City-employed photographer Sharon Latham as she was taking pictures of players and coaches (via 101 Great Goals). Various sites have already termed this move a "prank," and Man City's official YouTube page posted the clip with "FUNNY" as the first word of the title, as if to prepare it for maximum viral shelf-life.
However, from this vantage, it looks like garden-variety dickishness. While Latham laughs after Balotelli runs off with her lens, the fact of the matter is that he interrupted her while she was trying to do her job. Pulling pranks on others is part of the Balotelli mystique — he stole Kun Aguero's gloves last season — but previous cases had been tolerable because they put the lie to cliches about the necessary seriousness of the team environment and the need to stay focused on the task at hand when preparing for a match. Balotelli does those things here, yet the context is remarkably different. As a well-paid athlete messing with a random club employee, he's effectively exploiting his status to have some fun at another's person's expense.
I don't bring up this point to protect Latham — she's a grown woman and doesn't need random dudes thousands of miles away to maintain her dignity. Rather, what interests me here is the extent to which we turn a pretty dickish action by Balotelli into another story for our "That's So Mario!" anthology. My fear, as I mentioned many times in this space last season, is that prolonged exposure to Balotelli can turn him from a fascinating character into a new kind of type, another character to go along with the honorable captain and the talented but unseasoned phenom.
The lure of Balotelli, or at least what makes him special, has always been that he's able to bring together so many disparate actions and roles at once. His pranks can be simultaneously funny and indicative of a sort of elitism; his play on the pitch can be alternately workmanlike and flamboyant. To focus on one aspect of his personality is to deny him what makes him most special.