Andrew Leci: Not so super Mario

Andrew Leci talks about the hits and misses of Mario Balotelli, who was both a prolific goalscorer and an enigma bordering on juvenile delinquent
By Andrew Leci

No one was sadder to see Mario Balotelli leave Manchester City than Roberto Mancini.

It’s probably safe to say that no one was more relieved either. And that just about sums up a brief career in English football.

Balotelli arrived at City in August 2010, with the Inter manager at the time, Jose Mourinho, delighted to see him walk out the door – he described him as “unmanageable”.

The player had just turned 20 when he joined City, and was paid more in a week than a top nurse in the UK earns in 8 years. I apologise (again) for using this comparison, but it’s irresistible. I consider the nursing profession to be highly honourable, often unpleasant, fraught with pressure and conducted in almost invariably unpleasant circumstances, while footballers sometimes earn vast amounts of money for playing a game. It’s a debate for another day, perhaps.

It didn’t take long for Balotelli to stamp his mark, and the match in which he scored his first Premier League goals set the tone, pretty much, for the next two years. He scored both goals in City’s 2-0 win at West Bromwich Albion, and was then sent off for violent conduct.

In all, Balotelli made 80 appearances for Manchester City (only 49 of them were ‘starts’) and scored 30 goals. The statistics were good; his behaviour off the field, was not.

Car crashes, setting off fireworks in a house, training ground fights, throwing darts at youth team players – these are just a few of the incidents that characterised Mario’s career in Manchester (although he did maintain that in the second case, it wasn’t actually him that lit the touch paper, but a friend).

Charitably, we’ll refer to him as a ‘prankster’, with a sense of mischief and a love of the life he perceived. Uncharitably, he’s a well-balanced ‘nut job’. Why ‘well-balanced’? Because he seems to have a chip on both shoulders.

I’m wondering if his upbringing may have had something to do with his temperament. His parents more or less disowned him as a child, farming him out to foster parents, and then, according to Mario himself, trying to reclaim him when fame and fortune became his uncomfortable bedfellows.

I’m no psychologist, but the scenario could quite easily have led to the kind of dysfunctional behaviour that has been ubiquitous in his ‘adult’ life. After all, we’ve seen many individuals from humble beginnings splashing the cash and bringing the bling when stardom has arrived on the doorstep.

And let’s not forget that Mario is still only 22 years-old. I wonder what I would have been like at that age, in his situation. “More money than sense” is certainly a phrase that springs to mind.

I have a feeling that people will be making excuses for Mario’s youth for some time to come. It was always a fall-back for Mancini, who seems to have approached the player as a sort of anthropological experiment.

Mancini’s relief at the player’s departure was tempered by his disappointment at not being able to turn him around, either as a player (the word ‘mercurial’ could have been invented for him) or as a human being.

Mancini took him under his wing, and gave him every chance to prove his worth as a footballer and at least make progress on his developing maturity as a person. The City manager will maintain that it was a work in progress, but the project was stillborn, and we’ll never know, regrettably in my opinion, whether or not it would have succeeded. Mancini’s hand was forced as it cut the cord. He will feel as though he failed.

Let’s be honest about this, in many ways Mario Balotelli is a monster of our own making. We have all contributed to the situation by helping to put a young, not particularly well educated (or well adjusted, let’s not beat around the bush) man in a position of significant status and responsibility. He couldn’t handle it; he may never be able to handle it, but I’m sure the abiding sentiment is that we would like to have seen more, and heard more about Balotelli the footballer, rather than Balotelli the enigma bordering on juvenile delinquent.

Personally, I will miss him, but, probably, for all the wrong reasons.

Catch Andrew Leci on The Verdict at 8pm on ESPN, and during the live match presentation of the Barclays Premier League.