Jim White

We all love Mario (except City)

Jim White

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Mario Balotelli: why always him?

I think Mario Balotelli is great. He is a huge addition to the public landscape. Apparently on a one-man mission to cheer us all up, everything about him is hilarious, from his Buster Keaton-faced goal celebrations through his choice of t-shirts to his daily scrapes.

And every "why always me" moment invariably cheers me up. Particularly the revelation that his assignation with the gold-digger who pursued Wayne Rooney was but "a brief encounter". One, presumably, more Boris Becker than Trevor Howard.

Whatever his apparent abrasiveness, though, I believe he is decent guy at heart. There is something refreshing in those mad spurts of generosity he engages in. If only a few more of our Premier League millionaires chucked their money out of the window of their Bentley at passing schoolkids, or handed over their casino winnings to a beggar, or paid for a bunch of rough sleepers to have a night in a five star hotel. Plus, if I were 21 and earning more in a week than Croesus put away in a lifetime, I might well find myself outside a strip joint at silly o'clock. It is hard not to indulge when you so clearly can.

And yet, the information seeping daily from the Manchester City dressing room is that many of his team mates do not share my certainty that he is a good thing. Alexander Kolarov seemed to be expressing the wider opinion of the City playing staff when he swore exasperatedly in his face during the game against Sunderland. Yaya Toure too appears less than enamoured with him. And he is unlikely to feature high on Nigel de Jong's Christmas card list.

All of them see his eccentricities not as endearing but as unprofessional. At a time of the season when all should be knuckling down, committing themselves to the cause, his recklessness is winding them up. They just wish he could be a bit more sensible, a bit more focusses, a bit less silly. And leave the big time Charlie stuff until there is something concrete to celebrate.

You can understand their point of view. How odd must it seem that he continues to push the boundaries when — to pluck one name at random from the City roster — Carlos Tevez is ex-communicated for a misdemeanour that would be considered but a minor exhibit in the Balotelli hall of shame.

What they are objecting too, in short, is not so much the lad himself — who, by all accounts, is widely recognised within the group as a decent bloke — as the manner in which he is indulged. They look at the rope he has been extended and wonder why it is that the management of the club does nothing even as he proceeds daily to demonstrate how to hang himself with it.

It is an oddity of Roberto Mancini's management that he has so assiduously let his fellow Italian get away with it. He is not a man previously known for laxness in areas of discipline. He tends to the severe in his dealings with his players. And while most within the game accept that different players need different man-management approaches, tailored to their personality, they wonder why Mancini has not yet appreciated that Balotelli is not yet sufficiently mature properly to handle the latitude he is gifted.

The comparison is often made with the manner in which Alex Ferguson dealt with Eric Cantona. It is true the Frenchman was afforded room others in the Manchester United squad were never allowed. While the manager insisted his young charges adhere to certain codes of dress or time-keeping, they never were extended to Cantona.

The difference, however, is that Cantona was in his late twenties at the time, no longer a youthful hot head but a grown man utterly dedicated to the cause. Sure, he didn't have to wear a suit to club functions, but he was first on and last off the training ground. Those required to stick to the rules didn't mind his exceptional treatment when he scored the goals that made the difference.

With Balotelli, the feeling is he does not deliver sufficient return to justify the leeway.
And maybe the City manager is beginning to understand that his indulgence — while it might well suit the individual — is damaging the group. At his press conference yesterday, Mancini suggested he understood the other players' frustration with their wayward forward. Were he a player, he would want to punch Balotelli every day.

It was a nice line, evidence that the manager's dry sense of humour is still in full working order despite the pressures induced by a faltering title chase. But whether it indicates that he is willing to make public example of the player in order to calm the fraying nerves in the rest of the squad remains to be seen.

Indeed, for much of the season it has been said that Mancini's campaign would be defined by his treatment of a highly strung forward. We all assumed that was Carlos Tevez. As it turns out, it was Mario Balotelli all along. On him — not just in the way he plays but in the effect he has on others - may well hinge City's immediate future.

On one thing the Italian youngster was definitely right: he might not know why, but ultimately it may well be all about him.

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