GIVEN the scale of the charge sheet, it would take some real-life amalgam of Atticus Finch, Perry Mason and Rumpole of the Bailey to successfully defend the reputation of Mario Balotelli.
Where do we begin with his transgressions? Training ground bust-ups with Jerome Boateng, Vincent Kompany, Micah Richards and now, of course, with Roberto Mancini, too. On-field controversies with Scott Parker, Bacary Sagna and Alex Song. There’s the arrogance and the petulance, the laziness in games, the rampant indiscipline and the sundry displays of idiocy, like attempting to drive into a women’s prison in Brescia and setting his own house on fire in Manchester.
Balotelli has become a parody of himself, a pantomime villain. Mr Angry. A wild lunge on his team-mate, Scott Sinclair, was the catalyst for the rammy with his manager at their training base at Carrington last week and, so the analysis goes, the latest reason why Manchester City should offload him at the first opportunity. The gist is that the 22-year-old has become more trouble than he’s worth and there is a weight of evidence that backs up that view, not least his negligible contribution to City’s defence of the Premier League title. He has scored only once in the league this season.
The player might be failing his club but you could argue that football is failing the player. Of course, the game has given him fame and riches and an opinion of himself that has long since drifted off to outer space, but it has also let him down time and time again in his career. We are talking now about the scourge of racism and there is no doubt that Balotelli has been one of the most abused players – if not the most abused – in world football in that regard in the last four years. Basically, from when he was an 18-year-old breaking into Inter Milan’s first team.
This is where Balotelli is deserving of some understanding. Nobody knows if the persistent targeting of him for the colour of his skin has had an influence on his personality, but some of the victimhood he displays – “Why Always Me?” – makes you wonder. It’s not just the targeting of him either. It’s the horrendous lack of proper action from the football authorities in Europe in the wake of him being targeted, the pathetic fines meted out to the racists and, in some cases, the denial that he was ever abused at all. Given what has happened to him – and what continues to happen – the psychology of Balotelli is a complex business. If he has a rage within him then he could produce a dossier of examples to explain why he’s so damn difficult to handle.
In the week that AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng won worldwide admiration for having the bravery to walk off a football pitch after being racially abused by some Neanderthals attached to the Pro Patria club, it’s worth considering Balotelli’s own journey through the horrors of racism and the feeble protection he has been afforded. In early 2009, when just 18, Balotelli was subjected to monkey chants playing for Inter against Roma, who were then fined £7,600 for the actions of their fans.
A month later, Juventus supporters attacked him in a song that said that black Italians do not exist. Juve’s president, Giovanni Cobolli Gigli, condemned the “racist chants” and vowed to create a sporting culture that centred on respect for all. When the Italian FA handed down their punishment – a small fine plus one game to be played behind closed doors – Juventus said it was too harsh and appealed. The president’s vow seemed pretty hollow at that point.
Imagine Balotelli’s mindset. The song, including foul abuse and an untrammelled use of the n-word, was, in the aftermath, deemed non-racist by Balotelli’s own manager, Jose Mourinho. Later, Marcello Lippi, then the Italian national team manager, said, in response to the Juve incident, that there was no racism in Italian football.
A year later, aged 19, Balotelli was subjected to racist chanting by Chievo fans. When he was substituted he made an ironic gesture of applause towards the section of the ground where the abuse was coming from – and got fined ¤7,000 by the Italian football federation. No punishment was handed out to Chievo. Around the same time he had a bunch of bananas thrown at him in a bar in Rome. “The fans are more and more sickening,” he once said.
Last year, the incidents came thick and fast, one more disgraceful than the next. In a European game with Porto, Balotelli was again a target, UEFA fining Porto just £16,700 for racist chanting, which was £8,000 less than they fined Manchester City for taking to the field approximately 30 seconds late in another European game. Naturally, Porto denied racism against Balotelli. They called it a misunderstanding. “I did not notice anything,” said their manager, Vitor Pereira.
At the European championships last summer, Spain were fined £16,000 for racially abusing Balotelli. Angel Villar Llona, president of the Spanish association, insisted that racism was not a problem in Spanish football. “There is no racism,” he said. At the same championships, Balotelli was also targeted by Croatian fans and, again, the punishment from UEFA was feeble.
At the same time, a right-wing politician in Italy mocked Balotelli by way of a photoshop image of the footballer as a migrant picking crops in a field, and the respected newspaper, Gazzetto dello Sport, depicted him as King Kong atop Big Ben, a giant ape laying the English low. The paper claimed that it was a tribute to the player as one of the giants of the game, but later it apologised. Balotelli was said to be furious. No wonder. This kind of thing continues. In October a Stoke fan called the Italian a monkey and was banned. There is seemingly no escape. He gets racially abused and inside, perhaps, the rage builds.
What is the greatest crime here? Balotelli’s indiscipline and ego or the way he has been treated in the football stadiums of Europe? There is no doubt that the guy is a hard man to love – and even to defend – but the spats, the objectionable prima donna routine, are as nothing when compared to the injustices against him. “Why Always Me?” It’s a statement he is mocked for now because people see it as a manifestation of his self-pity. But, when looked at through the prism of racism, it’s a legitimate question. And one we should all ponder.