I really felt for Mario Balotelli as I watched him taking a stand against the disgusting racist abuse aimed at him from fans in Verona on Sunday.
I’ve always had a soft-spot for Mario as a player since I first saw him at Inter. The Brescia striker remains one of the most talented players that I’ve ever seen play in person. There’s been a lot of negative reporting on Mario in the past, many of it unfair in my opinion, so I thought this was the ideal time for a more positive look at Balotelli’s career so far.
It was a Coppa Italia tie against Juventus where a 17-year-old Mario burst into the national spotlight with two goals which showcased his talents as a footballer. The first saw him use his pace to get on the end of a long ball followed by a show of strength in shrugging off a challenge from Giorgio Chiellini. As he entered the penalty-area he showed the composure and confidence of a seasoned goal-scorer to wait for the ball to sit perfectly before, almost nonchalantly, prodding the ball into the net.
Goal number-two saw Mario receive the ball with his back to goal as Juve defender Nicola Legrottaglie tried to shove him off the ball. Undeterred, the Inter youngster took one touch before spinning to fire an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the Juventus net. It was all there in those two goals, flair, an eye for goal, pace, power and talent in abundance.
When Mario arrived in England with Manchester City he did so with a reputation as a difficult player to work with. His last boss at Inter, Jose Mourinho, once described the young Italian-international as ‘unmanageable’. It was the character of the man though, as well as his talent on the field, that really drew me in as a fan.
There aren’t many players like Balotelli in football these days, a larger-than-life character who makes you watch a match because you know, if he is on the pitch, anything can happen. Mario began to collect a back catalogue of memorable moments in his time at City, from the sublime to the ridiculous (who could forget the hat shaped like a giant glove!)
One such moment came in in one of the biggest of games of the season as City took on United in an Old Trafford, Manchester derby. Reports had made the papers on the morning of the match that Police had been called to Balotelli’s house in the early hours of the previous day as the striker was allegedly setting off fireworks from the bathroom window of his residence.
Manager Roberto Mancini stuck with Mario as his starting striker and in-turn, on a day where City humbled United 6-1, Balotelli provided one his most memorable moments as he side-footed the Blues in front. As mayhem broke out in the away end, the goal scorer calmly turned around to face the cameras and pulled his shirt over his head, revealing the message on his under-shirt, ‘Why always me?’.
It’s true that Balotelli didn’t always behave impeccably on and off the pitch in his time in England but the thing I found most endearing about him was that I always felt he was enjoying himself. If he wasn’t knocking the ball in with his shoulder, he was getting subbed off in a pre-season game for trying to beat the keeper with a back-heel when through on goal.
In addition to the impudence and cheeky celebrations, Balotelli showed why for me, he is the best penalty taker in the world. A slow run-up whilst looking at the keeper and waiting for them to make the first move usually culminated in Mario rolling the ball into the opposite corner. It looked cheeky, it seemed cocky and that perhaps over-shadowed just how impressive his technique was.
Mario’s unforgettable moments aren’t confined to his time on the blue side of Manchester. A double against Germany in the semi-final of Euro 2012 is best remembered for his shirtless celebration following what was a stunning second goal. His tears following defeat to Spain in the final were just as memorable for different reasons as Mario showed his passion for the national side.
The moments of brilliance continued although their frequency decreased, including two goals on debut for Milan after arriving from Manchester. A spell in France somewhat rejuvenated the forward following a difficult period, at Nice he totalled 43 goals in 76 appearances. At Marseille another moment made for social media as he celebrated a spectacular goal against Saint-Etienne with phone in hand, the celebration going out on the star’s Instagram account.
Mario is back at his footballing home now, playing with his late-adoptive father’s favourite team Brescia. A return to Italy which has come with the painful reminder of his difficulties in growing up as a black man in the country.
Even though Mario’s response to the racist idiots in the stands at the weekend, he still offered a reminder of his footballing ability. Despite how he must have felt following the abuse and near walk-off, Balotelli managed to curl a long-range effort into the top corner of the Verona net on the resumption of play.
Balotelli is a rare type of player which you don’t see often in the game these days. He’s both a throw-back and very much a modern player both at the same time. I don’t agree with those that say he has wasted his talents, he’s won trophies, played in several of Europe’s top leagues and has been capped for his country.
One thing I would love to see for Mario is a reunion with his former-boss Roberto Mancini at the Euro’s next summer and I’ll be willing him and Brescia on for the rest of the season in the hope that it happens.