The boy is like a bee in an ice cream parlour; for all your efforts you just cannot keep him out of the news, as he whizzes from one colourful story to the next. And after the FA swatted Mr Balotelli with a four-match ban for his supposed head stamp on Tottenham’s Scott Parker, I can’t help but think he’ll just come back angrier than ever.
Inevitably, most will peer over their morning papers to tell you just how far football has slumped over the last twenty years; that the Manchester City striker is symptomatic of today’s lapse in sportsmanship. A close friend of mine, discounting the alleged spite in his latest infamy, offered an alternative view. I paraphrase here, but it went something along the lines of ‘he is exactly what the game needs’.
I was literally stunned (possibly as you may be now) into one of those surreal moments when you actually begin to consider calling those men with the white coats. More worryingly then, the next moment I started to wonder if my friend was right.
First, I drew two parallels from our own football universe. An interesting one came in the shape of Balotelli’s Manchester United counterpart, a Frenchman who graced our shores back in the distant nineties. As a staunch United hater, it pains me to concede that Eric Cantona was the equivalent of a footballing God, only underlined by my lasting image of his goal celebration versus Sunderland in ’96 – chest out, arms stretched, seemingly baffled by his teammates’ hysteria at that oh so sublime chip. Indeed, most United fans I know would have him in (or considerably close to) their all-time starting line-ups.
But you also got a sense that beneath the steely determined face of this player, there was a man with passions and emotions that ultimately made him human. His brash, outspoken nature turned him into a person, 3D; someone we could identify with other than another blank-faced paper cut-out who happened to don our favourite (or least favourite) shirt. And for me, that is his lasting legacy. The sheer brilliance of the man on the pitch was only secondary to the vibrant character he offered us every Saturday afternoon.
And isn’t that what sport is about? Drama, excitement; a clash in personalities here, a karate kick there? No? Alright, maybe I retract that last one. But I hope you’re catching my drift.
Same goes for a much more recent example. Jose Mourinho is one of the most controversial figures in modern football. Again, he happens to be one of the most successful. But once he’s retired, however many titles down the line, I wonder, like Cantona, will he first be remembered for those titles or berating the opposition in his pre-match press conferences? His trophies or self-obsessive conspiracies? I’d wager the former in both, but what we may realise in the future is just how much we miss him for the latter. Because that’s what keeps us coming back. Football isn’t just a sport, it’s a story. And just as you may have begged your granddad to continue reading your bedtime story, pleaded with him to go on so that you could cheer on the hero or boo the pantomime villain, so too do fans across the globe crave for every next chapter.
Just as tennis’ John ‘You cannot be serious!’ McEnroe and American football’s Terrell ‘Get your popcorn ready!’ Owens, Balotelli is by no stretch of the imagination perfect, but he is (sadly) one in a million.
Injection of life or king of melodrama? I’ll let you bee the judge. And at the risk of letting off any unintended firework puns, I’ll sign off there.