“There is no doubting Mario’s ability; he is a world-class talent and someone who, for such a young age, has vast experience of playing at the very highest level.”
There is never an awkward silence when discussing a list of Brendan Rodgers’ greatest quotes. Between envelopes, training dogs and educating players, and describing numerous different things as ‘outstanding’, the Northern Irishman’s penchant for the faux-philosophical precedes his reputation. When Brendan talks, we all listen. And many of us are left laughing or scratching our heads – or both – afterwards.
Whenever his most memorable quotes are assembled, when the much-awaited compendium of Brendanisms is published, Rodgers’ evaluation of the striker he signed for Liverpool in summer 2014 will not feature. Some people do no wait for an excuse to ridicule the 43-year-old, but his branding of Mario Balotelli as “a world-class talent” has escaped censure.
Of course, these are the terms – alongside any variation of ‘mad’ – which have been used to discuss Balotelli for the past decade. Just as any mention of Peter Crouch must include his surprisingly adept footwork, his Italian counterpart has been the world-class talent, the mercurial prodigy, the player with every necessary attribute since his breakthrough in 2006. The Italian was gifted with pace, strength and skill. And yet he is now searching for his sixth permanent club at the age of 25.
There is little wonder Rodgers’ appraisal of the forward is never mocked. It is one repeated by some of the game’s most recognisable figures to this day. “In my view, he’s one of the best players in the world,” said Roberto Baggio in September of last year. “He could be among the top five in the world,” added former Italy head coach Cesare Prandelli in December.
They are not alone. “He’s no mug. In a certain style of team he’s a world-class player,” said an excitable Michael Owen in 2014.
“I have played with some of the best strikers, and I can tell you Mario has all the attributes to be one of the best strikers in the world,” international teammate Andrea Pirlo added recently.
From Rodgers to Prandelli to Baggio to Owen to Pirlo, five figures who have all played or managed at the highest level of the game, all sharing the same opinion: Mario Balotelli is world class. Or at least he should be.
Jurgen Klopp joined the chorus earlier this summer. “We want Mario to become the player he was before his injury,” said the Liverpool boss. “The talent is still there – no doubt about it. When we have done the crossing, heading and stuff in training, he’s been world class.” Crossing? World class. Heading? World class. Stuff? World class. Now form an orderly queue for this player we do not want.
As Balotelli’s Anfield chapter draws to a close, another door is slammed shut. The 25-year-old broke through at Inter Milan, won a Premier League title with Manchester City, scored 30 goals in 54 games with AC Milan then struggled in a troubled Liverpool side in transition. Now looking for a new club, there should be shortage of potential suitors. With no disrespect (but a massive dose of disrespect) to Besiktas, that track record surely warrants more than a move to Turkey?
But his career path only tells half the story. This is a striker with four league titles and a Champions League winner’s medal among his collection, but who has never scored more than 14 league goals in a single season. He is a former winner of the coveted Golden Boy award, yet has two goals in his last 36 league appearances. He was once chosen in the best team of a major international tournament – Euro 2012 – yet did not make Italy’s squad for the same competition four years later.
A decade into his career as a professional footballer, we are still told of Balotelli’s potential, of how he could be the ‘best in the world’. Rodgers, Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini, three different managers with three wildly different approaches, are among those who have tried and failed to help him fulfil said potential. At what stage do we wonder whether we have all been duped – that this is his potential, and talk of becoming the best player in the world was always folly?
In a recent article on his ‘decline‘, the Daily Mail described him as ‘destined to be world class’ in the headline. The insinuation is that the 25-year-old was bestowed with the necessary gifts, but could not combine them to reach his immense potential – all the gear, but no idea. ‘Brilliant talent, sh*te attitude, wasted potential’ has been the pub consensus shared by everyone’s drunk father for years. Regardless of his transgressions, a player of his supposed quality would have managed to breach double figures more than three times in any given league campaign. Potential cannot be wasted if it was never there in the first place. He has featured for Italian and English giants, European champions and Liverpool, yet has been shuffled out of the back door of every club.
Perhaps the football world – Rodgers, Prandelli, Baggio, Owen and Pirlo included – is slowly coming to the realisation that Balotelli never has been nor ever had the propensity to be among the best talents in the world. That it is not simply a question of bad attitude when you boast the same career league-goals-per-game ratio as Grant Holt (both 0.35). That clubs have been signing Balotelli the brand – the fireworks, both literal and figurative, the t-shirts, the training-bib struggles – and not Balotelli the player.
Few have ever challenged the portrayal of Balotelli as a supremely talented player, so widely accepted and preached by luminaries from Rodgers to Pirlo. Among that small selection is one Jamie Carragher. “People tell me he’s got talent but I can’t remember him having a good game,” he said earlier this year. Certainly, one would not require two hands when counting his memorable performances. With Mino Raiola as his agent, perhaps the only thing that has ever been world class about the Italian is his PR team. Coming into what is often recognised as the peak age of any player’s career, there looks likely to be only troughs ahead.