There has not been much good news associated with football in the last week. What with Malky Mackay’s witless, potty-mouthed text “banter”, the declaration of intent by the Glazers to stay on at Manchester United for at least another five years and poor old Gazza looking wretched on the tabloid front pages, it has not been a celebratory seven days. As yet there has been no requirement to hang out the bunting. The champagne has remained resolutely on ice.
Which makes the news emanating from Anfield all the more encouraging. It appears Mario is back. The bonkers Balotelli has been signed by Liverpool. The one man story-generation machine has returned to our lives. And that noise you can hear wafting eastwards out of the city is the sound of chuckling emanating from the Merseyside press corps as they contemplate the wealth of front page tales that are about to come their way. Already life seems a little more colourful, the view a little less monochrome. There is no-one more likely to cheer us all up than Super Mario.
It appeared when Balotelli left Manchester City in January 2013 that we had seen the last of him in the Premier League. Dispatched from the Etihad after he had threatened to turn the luxuriously fringed manager Roberto Mancini bald with the amount of hair he had torn out in frustration, it appeared his comedy antics would no longer be ours to savour. Never mind that most of them were spun, exaggerated or simply invented, this was a man whose supposed eccentricities were a constant source of delight. Even if, while he was entertaining the rest of us, he was driving his colleagues doollaly.
No more than 18 months later, however, and here he is again, mad hair, mad hats, madcap proclivities and all. How you pity the Liverpool FC public relations team. After finally finding themselves no longer required to police the activities of Luis Suarez, they must have thought their life was set to become easy. Now, never mind a pay rise, as their workload is set to double, by the end of the season the PR folk will be seeking psychiatric help.
One thing they will quickly discover is that Balotelli is a very different story to Suarez. Whereas the Uruguayan provoked outrage by his behaviour, the Italian mainly engenders tittering. He is also a very different presence in the club. Suarez’s problems were largely driven by the fact he cared too much. With Balotelli, the impression often given is that he couldn’t care less.
While Suarez was a brooding, intense, hugely competitive figure who approached every game as if it were a personal duel, throwing himself into the fray with nothing less than full-on commitment, Balotelli can entirely absent himself from the battle, disappearing from even the most critical engagement.
Suarez is a model of application, in training and around the club. Whatever he might do to opponents, throughout his career, team-mates have universally spoken in admiring tones of his professionalism. In contrast, Balotelli’s lack of application has proved the most corrosive influence in every dressing room he has occupied, his colleagues quickly tiring of his antics and the manner in which he appears always to generate special consideration from management attempting to extract satisfactory performances. At City in particular, his presence became latterly poisonous.
There is no doubt the Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has taken on a challenge. Where Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini were infuriated by their failure to wrest consistent excellence from a player all too often distracted and absent, he believes he can succeed. And if he does so, if he coaxes on a regular basis the sort of performance hinted at by Balotelli’s sublime talent, then this could be the most significant signing of his career. A bargain David Dickinson would be thrilled to encounter.
Because the risks involved in recruiting Balotelli are reflected in the asking price. £16 million for a 24-year-old capable of the kind of performance that eviscerated Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-final represents an absolute steal. On the other hand, £16m for a player who, sulking like a stroppy 14-year-old, shruggingly absented himself from the Brazil World Cup, looks the equivalent of flushing a tenner round the u-bend.
In many ways, it is possible to characterise the signing of Balotelli as a desperate measure. Anxious for a heavyweight replacement for the Barca-bound Suarez, Liverpool have spent the summer variously chasing Radamel Falcao, Karim Benzema and Edinson Cavani. They thought they had signed Loic Remy, only for a medical to intervene.
Still, at £16m, Balotelli offers a significantly lower risk than he would have represented had Milan managed to extract the figure of £40m they had put on him at the start of the summer. But then, by the end of August, they were getting desperate to offload him.
However Rodgers manages him, as he arrives at Melwood, obliged to sign a code of conduct like a wayward teenager, there is one thing we can be certain of a player who in every other way is so startlingly unpredictable and inconsistent: whether he thrives or bombs, he will be one of the stories of the season. Welcome back Mario, the Premier League missed you.
- Jim White
- Sports & Recreation
- Luis Suarez
- Manchester United
- Roberto Mancini