Football provides more last chances than most industries, but this is it for Mario Balotelli. Despite the evident flaws, you can’t help but root for football’s rainbow chaser…
It is a move straight out of the self-help manual. Following a hellish year at Liverpool and a brief spell in Melwood purgatory, Mario Balotelli is moving back to Milan. Football offers more shots at redemption than the typical industry, but Balotelli is nursing a drink in the last chance saloon. A pile of cocktail umbrellas on an empty table gives the game away; the fun has run out.
‘Sometimes you have to go backwards to move forwards,’ is the quote that springs to mind. Until now, the Italian has taken the Johnny Depp approach to that particular epithet. “Just keep moving forward and don’t give a s**t about what anybody thinks,” Depp once said. “Do what you have to do, for you.”
Therein lies a large part of Balotelli’s recent strife. He is a maverick who is seemingly incapable of quelling a desire to do exactly as he pleases. Set off a firework in his bathroom? Why not? Shoot at his own goal from 40 yards in training, a story re-told by the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor recently? Of course. Balotelli is an inadvertent follower of Aleister Crowley’s True Will maxim: ‘There is no law beyond do what thou wilt.’ With Mario, doing comes first; thinking can come later.
Unfortunately, (most) footballers quickly learn that in order to play the game, you must step the line. The pressure on managers has never been greater and patience has never been rarer. That creates distrust for the mavericks, with managers decreasingly prepared to take a chance on the unreliable.
This maverick vacuum may cause football romantics to mourn for the loss of something intangible, but that fails to change reality. As football continues to practise its impression of soulless commerce, managers treat difference with suspicion. When your aim is to control the controllables, reliability is celebrated. It is no surprise that Balotelli should be made homeless in that town.
In truth, Balotelli is fortunate that Milan have rescued him from his slow Merseyside suffocation. Three years ago he was ‘Super Mario’. Then came just ‘Mario’. Now his name cannot be uttered without a shaking of the head. His reputation sits somewhere between irrevocably broken and badly damaged.
Many players have been accused of wasting their talents, but Balotelli has taken this principle to the nth degree. “Is he even that talented?” was the question asked by most Liverpool supporters last season.
“There are negotiations with Liverpool for a loan, but we have not reached an agreement on wages,” Milan CEO Adriano Galliani said on Sunday. “We want Balo because we are convinced this lad realises that this is absolutely his last chance. I hope he understands that.” In the space of two sentences, ‘convinced’ had become ‘hope’. The doubts are entirely forgiveable.
Balotelli’s Liverpool disaster barely bears repeating, but a return of one Premier League goal after a £16m purchase offers sufficient evidence for the prosecution. The Italian has been spending the last few weeks with fellow exiles Fabio Borini and Jose Enrique after being banished from regular training by Brendan Rodgers. ‘Training with the kids’ is football parlance’s version of being sent to Coventry, something that no doubt leaves Newcastle’s Adam Armstrong very confused.
Despite such on-field disappointment, it is important to remember that Balotelli has had plenty of personal issues over the last year. He has finally been able to spend time bringing up his first child – taking a DNA test to prove that he was the father – and has also had to cope with the illness and subsequent death of his adoptive father Francesco.
Balotelli is not a young man who seems able to deal with stress easily. In February 2014, when at Milan, Balotelli cried on the bench after failing to score a goal to dedicate to his daughter Pia. As a child he would refuse to celebrate his goals as that would draw attention to himself and the colour of his skin. Balotelli has repeatedly spoken of his difficulties in integrating into a predominantly white society as a youngster.
As that final story indicates, Balotelli’s first reaction to adversity is to put up a façade to conceal his vulnerability. A further reminder (because people continue to forget or ignore this fact) that footballers are not robots, and remuneration provides no emotional blanket to help them cope with personal tragedy and loss.
“I have changed,” said Balotelli on Monday as reports of his Milan move surfaced. “The experience of being a father has been good for me. I have also been marked by the loss of my own father. I won’t disappoint you.”
Liverpool and Rodgers must share too in the blame for Balotelli’s abject return to England. He is a player and a person who needs to be loved, mollycoddled even. Yet it is clear that he never felt part of the Liverpool family, a situation exacerbated by Rodgers’ public admission that he bought Balotelli because he was the only toy left in the shop on Christmas Eve.
“I always said it was about availability and affordability of players,” Rodgers told reporters last October. “Mario was the one right at the very end who was available for that. I said when he came in that it was a calculated risk and it’s something I have to work on to try to make it work for the team.” Way to make him feel special.
The suspicion is that Rodgers was driven by his own ego, the ambition to succeed where Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Cesare Prandelli had all failed: Tempering Mario’s wild side. If you assumed that there would have been no happier man than Balotelli to score 20 goals last season, you’d be wrong. Rodgers’ toothy smile could have provided the lighting for overnight work on Anfield’s new development.
If Balotelli’s punishment was to be sent to Melwood’s Coventry, the club and Rodgers will soon get their own comeuppance. Fifty percent of the striker’s wages will be paid by Liverpool during his season in Italy. The loyalty bonus that was reportedly due to be coming Balotelli’s way (which Liverpool agreed as part of his contract, remember) will not be due.
Balotelli still has plenty of scope and time for redemption, and goals are the most valuable of currencies. Thirty-four percent of his career league goals have been scored in the San Siro, Milan’s man-made monolith. The concept of ‘home’ is alien to a generation of footballers who lay their hats in different cities every other year, but Milan is as close as Balotelli gets to footballing roots. He first moved to the city at the age of 16 from Lumezzane.
If Balotelli is seeking redemption, so too are Milan. The club fell on its knees last season, recording its lowest Serie A finish for 17 years under the questionable stewardship of Filippo Inzaghi. The hope is that both club and player can inspire one another, linking arms as they walk off into the sunset. It would be one of the stories of this European football season.
Having only turned 25 last week, it already feels like Balotelli has lived enough for two. In a sport that is becoming increasingly homogenised, he offers perplexity and variety in an environment which aims to stamp out such characteristics. Despite his obvious flaws, I find it impossible not to root for him.
For now, however, expectations must be kept low. Balotelli has suffered more than Liverpool during the last year, playing just 1,500 competitive minutes in the last 15 months. This is the footballing equivalent of switching the computer off and on again, and then crossing your fingers for improvement.
“He is condemned to chase a rainbow that he will never reach,” wrote Italian journalist Luigi Garlando when Balotelli’s move back to England was announced. There was to be no golden sky at the end of this storm, and the sweet silver song of the lark was absent too. Now football’s rainbow-chaser is off again in search of sunshine.
One thing is for sure; it’s now or never. The Rossoneri provide Mario Balotelli with his final chance not just to be the player that he can be, but that so many want him to be. “He is taking the last train,” was Adriano Galliani’s final message to reporters. Balotelli is going back to find what’s left of his world. The world he left behind not so long ago.