It was the transfer that nobody saw coming, least of all the manager. Brendan Rodgers told reporters only a couple of weeks back that Liverpool would “categorically” not be signing Mario Balotelli.
But barring a last-minute hitch, it now looks like they categorically will, filling the “loose cannon striker” vacancy at Anfield created by the exit of Luis Suarez. It’s thrilling news for the English Premier League, a competition always in search of capitalized NARRATIVE that goes beyond who scored, who lost, who got sent off.
The second coming of Jose Mourinho has been a relative disappointment, given his failure so far to emulate the abrasive antics of his first Chelsea spell. Middle-aged Mourinho wears sensible sweaters and largely seems to have retired from celebrating goals by sliding on his knees, hiding in laundry baskets to escape touchline bans and basically just bitching about everything any time a microphone is in front of his face.
But … Balotelli! Tabloid gold, paparazzi paradise. Balotelli is what happens when you put metal in a microwave. Based on past evidence it seems reasonable to predict 10-15 goals, some sort of police intervention and a legendary party featuring Prince Harry, hilarious costumes and exotic dancers.
During Balotelli’s spell with City he was the nearest thing English soccer had to Zach Galifianakis’ character in The Hangover. Or at least, that is how media portrayed him: a likeable but incurable weirdo with an aptitude for spectacular self-destruction. One of those people who gets described as “a project”, as if he were not so much a human being as an essay you’d hand in to your economics professor, or a feasibility study for a proposed freeway expansion.
Why always articles that ask: why always me? Because he’d do stuff like display a T-shirt with those words after scoring during a 6-1 win for City over United in the Manchester derby in 2011 – a day or two after firefighters were called to his house to extinguish a blaze caused by fireworks being set off in his bathroom. (One of his bathrooms, that is. It seems fair to assume that top EPL footballers have houses big enough for several.)
Stories about Balotelli’s supposed bizarre off-field behavior circulated, many of them highly entertaining and highly untrue.
The urban myths were fed by wildly inconsistent, sometimes temperamental on-pitch performances which made it seem like anything was possible with this guy. In Italy he was the victim of racism; in England he was the target of a sport that is desperate for quirky stars to relieve the tedium of the modern media-trained, disciplined, sensible superstar by feeding soccer’s soap opera sensibilities. He was treated as if he was a genius, a circus act and a kid in need of therapy – often all at once.
Balotelli was the EPL’s semi-tragic clown king, worthy successor to the nutso throne once occupied by Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne, and Eric “when ze seagulls follow ze trawler” Cantona, the violent, brooding, French philosopher, Luc Besson in shinguards. English soccer doesn’t know whether to be rapt or repulsed when it comes across personalities it can’t easily pigeonhole. So usually it opts for both.
I sat in a press conference in the Ukrainian capital in March, 2011, after a 2-0 win for Dynamo Kiev over City in the Europa League, listening to Balotelli’s then-manager Roberto Mancini claim that Balotelli had been substituted with a swollen face because he was allergic to grass. Was this true? Who knows. But it seemed odd, it seemed possible, and it seemed like the kind of thing that could only happen to him.
By the end, when he was sold to Milan in 2013, Mancini appeared utterly worn out: bruised, deflated and defeated by Balotelli’s energetic anarchy, like the burglars humbled by Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.
His time with City was complicated by his youth, the challenges of life in a foreign country, his difficult relationship with Mancini and his status as a celebrity living in the center of Manchester, one of England’s most fun cities after dark: imagine a Las Vegas-type atmosphere but with casinos replaced by pubs, buffets by curries and sunshine by rain.
The transfer fee has been reported as 16 million pounds ($27m). For a 24-year-old Italy international with a prolific scoring record, undoubted talent and title-winning experience? That’s crazy cheap. As in, cheap because people think he’s crazy.
But rather than try to lie him down on the couch and probe his childhood, as a thousand articles have done already, let’s hope future critical analysis is focused on what he produces on the pitch. And let’s remember that in the conformist, conservative world of soccer, “crazy” is a word too loosely thrown around, one that really means “not boring”. And by that definition, Balotelli is absolutely bonkers.