Last week, the ever excellent The Equaliser blog posted a story contending Mario Balotelli is compelling as a dramtic protagonist in football (go read it, I’ll wait). The argument is well made and identifies my own enjoyment in finding the characters and stories in football’s narrative. However, as I thought on Balotelli this week, one aspect did not sit easily, highlighted when the article draws a comparison from players like Asprilla, Cantona and Di Canio. What struck me about those players, as polarizing as they often were, was I never doubted they loved playing football. When I watch Balotelli, I’m not sure whether he enjoys it and there is a depressing element to watching any talented 20-year old appear so dejected when playing a game.
In December, his manager Roberto Mancini said about Balotelli: “You need to smile to play football.” At first I thought it was a veiled comment aimed at something else. Perhaps his relationship with team-mates, or the fans? But then I realized Mancini really meant just that, because smiling is one of the most basic ways to show you are happy. Not that it’s a requirement to be happy to play football, but it is rare to see a sad footballer. Most players during a game will range from displaying concentration, anger, joy at scoring, etc. A player who cuts a frustrated, or forlorn figure, comes under criticism. But even a player like Dimitar Berbatov, whose ‘languid’ (interpreted as ‘lazy’) style often nominates him for critique, looks like he enjoys scoring goals.
Balotelli’s natural demeanor also leads to a more difficult relationship with fans. I’d suggest for the majority of fans, football offers not only entertainment, but a brief escape from their own lives, to vicariously live out childhood fantasies. For fans, it is a joy and privilege to wear your team’s shirt; when a player doesn’t reciprocate, it tends to stick in the throats and memories. When a player appears depressed or disinterested, it reminds us of our own disappointments at the precise time we are trying to set them aside.
Balotelli’s style contrasts sharply with someone like Javier Hernandez at United. Although two years older, Hernandez appears much more humbled and excited to be playing. A cynic could suggest he is just playing up to fans’ expectations, but I think it’s hard to keep up such a consistent façade. Hernandez genuinely strikes me as someone who would have a hard time walking past a park without getting involved in an impromptu game of headers and volleys.
Earlier this month, Mancini admitted: “[Balotelli] is not listening to me. I speak but I don’t think he listens.” Italian Football Federation president, Giancarlo Abete, said: “He needs to mature and that has to be a personal choice.” Both comments have a slightly troubling air of resignation about them. I hope it is merely immaturity on Balotelli’s part and nothing more serious. I for one will gain much more satisfaction from seeing Balotelli fulfill his potential, ideally with a playful sneer across his face, than becoming an irrelevant heel.