By Jay Jaffa
The fall-out from Mario Balotelli's latest controversy was as swift and brutal as we have come to expect from the most opinion-dividing footballer in Britain. Twitter exploded with outrage as photographs emerged from Manchester City's Thursday training session of the maverick Italian striker tussling with his manager Roberto Mancini.
That Balotelli stopped to sign autographs for City fans after his training ground bust-up suggests that the so-called bad boy may not have been expecting the storm in the tea cup that followed though.
Of course, that important detail of the scuffle went unreported, as did the reason for the clash – a petulant trip on Scott Sinclair – but it is what we have come to expect from the Balotelli circus.
There are few, if any, sportsmen who create such fantastic headlines with ceaseless regularity. Muhammad Ali was cited by the journalist Robert Lipsyte as providing such good copy that it felt like “the journalistic equivalent of an easy lay”. While Balotelli is far from the greatest footballer in the world and in danger of compromising his career with every passing charade, the sentiment rings true in the modern press.
The headlines seem less about the details, instead drawing every ounce of drama from the love/hate relationship between Mancini and his protege. That the latest incident occurred just a matter of days into the January transfer window will ignite further rumours of his departure from Manchester, further filling column inches and in turn ensuring he remains the most discussed footballer on these shores.
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From letting off fireworks in his bathroom to the Instagram photo of him standing between a camouflage Bentley and quad bike in a camouflage onesie, he has entertained us, albeit in a uniquely unprofessional manner.
But it is a sad state of affairs if Thursday's clash with Mancini heralds his departure from the Premier League champions. The situation has been blown out of proportion, emphasised by the numerous current and ex-footballers, including Gary Neville, who have stood up for the striker, insisting that training ground bust-ups are part and parcel of the modern football club.
He is far from an angel and has made mistakes here and in Italy, yet the constant haranguing of his private life and on-pitch mishaps strike too close to the bone. Balotelli is box office entertainment, a 'character' that the modern game so sorely lacks. We as football fans, bemoan the bland, cliched interviews media-trained players deliver and then unleash volumes of abuse at the one man with the courage, disposition and self-assurance to speak frankly and act impulsively.
It seems odd also, that Mancini regularly receives a pass for his actions, the strained manifestations of a man under pressure seemingly acceptable despite evidence suggesting that he, rather than Balotelli, is the root of City's problems as they aim to retain their crown.
Balotelli spoke to the BBC, during a rare interview, of being an intensely private individual. He rarely goes looking for trouble, instead it finds him – especially more recently. Yet there is a boyish charm to Balotelli, a reckless abandon to his decision making that makes for great news but is sadly hindering his progression.
But it is easy to forget that he is still just 22-years-old. In Britain, we have grown accustomed to young footballers emerging in Premier League first teams, before being thrust in front of the media limelight and swiftly given the briefing needed to mumble their way through interviews. If they pose a problem, there is very little leeway given.
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Take Ravel Morrison as an example. At Manchester United, it was widely accepted that Sir Alex Ferguson viewed him as the biggest talent in the FA Youth Cup winning side of 2010-11, but that did not prevent the Scot from discarding him at the age of 18, such were the concerns with his attitude in training and at home.
As yet, Balotelli, a throwback to more spellbinding times, remains in Manchester but he may feel unfortunate that his biggest supporter is also his harshest critic. Mancini has never come across as the most tactile of coaches – often launching into tirades at his players – his reaction to Joe Hart's frank and honest autopsy of the 3-2 loss at the Bernabeu is a ripe example. Oddly enough, when one of his players does deserve a grilling – Samir Nasri's stupidity in earning a red card against Norwich comes to mind – Mancini is protective.
Balotelli may act like an idiot, but he remains a loveable idiot. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his former Inter team-mate and another problematic character, suggested that Balotelli must be loved if he is to be a success at City. Ibrahimovic no doubt empathises with Balotelli, a man with a background as complex and troublesome as the Swede, but one wonders whether it is too late.
His advice may be best adopted by the footballing public though. For if we are to keep the game the source of entertainment it is meant to be, taking the time to appreciate and love the eccentric renegade from Sicily may be the only option.
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