The Mario Balotelli Principle
What is so appealing about the maverick? Are we living vicariously through the man that we long to be? Take Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry”, the fearless enforcer of his own brand of judgement who would definitely shoot if you pissed him off. There was something much more appealing than the old argument that the Magnum was an extension of the penis or the simple theory that here was a cop who didn’t trust the courts to finish the job.
No, here was a man who was so sure of his convictions that he didn’t need the approval of his peers; the job would be done his way. Easy when it’s one on one, not so easy when you are a team player. How to express a mixture of flair and self-belief with simultaneous contempt for opponents in the cauldron of 50,000 paying punters and a TV audience of millions – all with their own opinion of how the job should be done?
When Mario Balotelli first arrived at Manchester City, I thought his posturing was an illustration of a poorly defined character, the expression of a naïve youngster who was perhaps a shy introvert. Over the coming months, however, he was to reveal a complex nature, his off-the-pitch generosity and nice-guy reputation at odds with the sullen football player.
An enigma then, a free spirit rather than the general perception of the rebel who argues with manager and team-mates. How to harness the non-conformist but brilliant dissident? How to impress on him that, ultimately, he will profit from playing with the team rather than against?
Roberto Mancini would do well to study Sir Alex Ferguson’s solution to the problem. When Fergie took on Eric Cantona, he already knew that the Frenchman was an unorthodox poseur – though Cantona was not yet a cod philosopher and movie star – and that, to get the best from the player, he would have to accommodate and flatter him.
He gave “King Eric” a pivotal role in the side that allowed him to express his flair by playing-in team-mates with killer passes while popping up with outrageous goals. The fact that Cantona played deeper than Balotelli no doubt made this easier but Fergie will always let a player play to his strengths. He has done the same with Rooney, largely shielding him from the Press while showing patience that has been amply rewarded.
Fergie revels in his elder statesman/father figure status but who can deny that it has brought out the best in some difficult personalities? Undeniable, too, is the ruthless fact that if he cannot progress with a player, he is soon on his way out of the club. Perhaps Mancini isn’t the sort of manager who can wrap a comforting arm around a player. After all, City look more like a dysfunctional family than a happy brood at the moment.
Looking from the outside in and speaking as a fan, to the paying/baying punter an eccentric player will always be a welcome diversion from the bland every-day-slot-the-ball-home-kiss-the-badge-make-the-usual-noises-for-the-TV type of player. “Vive la difference”, as Eric might have said.