As part of the buildup to the World Cup, ESPN FC presents a series of features on players who have divided opinion throughout their careers. It began with features of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez and continues with a profile of Mario Balotelli, the Italian forward whose moments of inspiration are as brilliant as his periods of malaise are maddening.
OK, so which Serie A midfield star of yesteryear do we believe?
Diego Simeone, who says: “He can resurrect a team from the dead. With his quality and athleticism, he can break any defensive structure. ... Any manager would want him on his team.”
Or Zvonimir Boban, who views things rather differently: “I don’t see why people keep talking about him. All he has achieved in life is sitting on the bench. In my day, he would have been carrying the bags of such players as [Marco] van Basten, [George] Weah or [Andriy] Shevchenko.”
In case you didn’t figure it out, they’re talking about Mario Balotelli. It’s inevitable that any discussion about him strays into the off-the-pitch stuff. You know, the silly tweets, the bib incident, the camouflage car, the paternity case, the training-ground bust-ups.
Or it becomes a discussion about race and the challenges he has faced as one of the first -- and certainly the most talked about -- black Italian superstar. Some see him as a Jackie Robinson-type; others view his skin hue as a means of abuse.
It’s not that these aspects aren’t worth exploring -- they are -- but for our purposes let’s focus on what he does on the pitch. He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s aware, he’s intense and he’s technically gifted. It’s a rare package, which is why Roberto Mancini, the man who gave him his Inter Milan debut and signed him for Manchester City, once said of him: “He can be what he wants to be. I think he’ll be one of the top five players in the world.”
Balotelli is 23 years old and has won three Serie A titles, a Premier League crown, a Coppa Italia, an FA Cup and a Champions League title. By any stretch, that’s a lot.
Did he contribute significantly to those trophies?
Some, yes. Others, less so.
Inter won the first of those three Serie A championships in 2007-08 by just three points. Balotelli was promoted from the youth and started all but one game in the last two months of the season, scoring three goals. In the other two titles, he was the club’s second- (eight) and third- (nine) leading scorer, respectively. Inter comfortably won one by ten points, but only squeaked the second by two. En route to the Coppa Italia victory, he scored the late winner against Juventus in the quarterfinal.
The Champions League win? Eight appearances (five of which were as a sub), one sending-off, one goal and one almighty bust-up with the Inter Milan ultras that prompted Jose Mourinho to bench him. It's fair to say he was a bit of a passenger here.
Balotelli's first season at Man City, 2010-11, was all about settling in, and he managed only 28 appearances and eight goals. But he did play 90 minutes against Manchester United in the FA Cup semifinal and was voted man of the match in the final.
Year 2 was a different proposition, as his goal tally rose to 17 in all competitions. He scored two in a historic 6-1 win at Old Trafford, and in the final game of the season, he set up Sergio Aguero’s winner, which gave City their first English title in more than four decades.
And although it’s not exactly a trophy, when he made his debut for Milan in 2012-13 after a midseason move, they were in 10th place in Serie A, 15 points from a Champions League spot. They finished third, largely on the strength of his 12 goals in 13 appearances.
Oh, and with the Italian national team, he did rather well at Euro 2012. Just ask Germany: His two first-half goals in the semifinal sent the Azzurri on their way, and he was voted to the team of the tournament.
Balotelli is not an out-and-out striker, but if you compare his league scoring record to what others had achieved at the same age, he doesn’t do too badly. He has 66 goals in 152 topflight games. It’s not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, of course. But when they were the same age, these are the numbers of some other big-name strikers: Edinson Cavani (54 in 142), Diego Costa (44 in 162), Wayne Rooney (68 in 194), Sergio Aguero (116 in 257), Samuel Eto’o (66 in 153), Robert Lewandowski (62 in 125) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (67 in 149).
OK, so why the bile toward Balotelli?
There are two valid arguments and one that’s not so valid.
The first is that he loses his cool far too easily, and when he gets grumpy or sulky, his work rate declines to close to zero. It’s not being lazy, because there are other days where he works off his rear end. Rather, it’s a switch that seems to flip in his brain, and a number of managers have aged prematurely in the vain attempt of finding that switch and keeping it set to “on.”
The other legitimate argument is that some of his behaviour -- more because of his immaturity than his being a bad egg -- can be patently disruptive to the dressing room. And it’s not just the guys he threw darts at. It’s folks who, on what is supposed to be a solid, cohesive unit, find his presence and the media attention that follows more of an annoyance than anything else.
It happened toward the end of his tenure at Inter, and if media reports are to be believed, his shtick got old at City as well. Both clubs concluded that ultimately, as talented as he was, he probably wasn’t worth the trouble, particularly because both were filled with plenty of gifted players at the time.
The less valid reason is that there’s something about Mario. It’s simply his look and body language. Some don’t mind it, some love it, some want to rip their eyeballs out when he pops up and does a Balotelli-type thing. Remember the period when he wouldn’t celebrate after scoring? Remember the stupid chicken hat? Remember him stomping around the Bernabeu and hogging the European Cup after Inter won the Champions League when, in fact, he had played 16 of 270 minutes after the quarterfinal stage (and none in the final)? Remember the T-shirt (“Why always me?”)?
Balotelli’s background, skill set and behavior are so unusual that he’s often portrayed as unique. But, in fact, two comparisons with fellow professionals neatly sum up the range of opinion.
Respected writer Mark Ogden once compared Balotelli to one Eric Cantona and was roundly vilified. His argument was based on Balotelli’s run-ins with authority, his ability and what he might come to achieve later in life.
In Ogden’s defence, Cantona at Balotelli’s age did not seem like a guy who would achieve immortality. He was a gifted forward who had scored 39 goals in 123 topflight games and had won nine French caps, scoring four goals. (Balotelli, just to refresh your memory, has 66 in 152 at club level, and 12 in 29 for Italy.)
But Cantona had serious disciplinary issues. He punched one teammate in the face and threw his boots in the face of another. He insulted the national team coach on live TV. He kicked the ball into the crowd and tore off his shirt during a friendly match.
(And this was all before some of his other notorious antics, like throwing the ball at the referee in anger, calling French FA disciplinary committee members “idiots” to their face, stomping on Swindon's John Moncur and, of course, jumping into the stands to karate-kick a Crystal Palace supporter who was berating him.)
Danish midfielder Martin Jorgensen took the opposite view: “Balotelli? He’s a lot like Nicklas Bendtner. Good on the pitch, not so good off it.”
Odds are, he probably belongs somewhere on the Bendtner-to-Cantona spectrum. Where you place him is up to you.