Many Premiership footballers have forced their way into their respective squads for Euro 2012, some repeating their great league form whilst others look a million miles away from themselves after flopping at international level. But no player has had their season summed up quite so aptly by this tournament than Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli. In just three games at Euro 2012, the Italy striker has emulated some of the controversy and class that he imposed on the Premiership throughout all of last season; and he’ll be England’s problem in the quarter-finals. The likes of John Terry and Ashley Cole have defended against Balotelli this year, and centre-back Joleon Lescott is even teammates with the Italian at Man City. But nobody can ever be sure what will happen next when Balotelli is around.
On Tuesday, England edged out Ukraine to advance to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 as group winners; an impressive achievement given the seemingly ordinary squad Roy Hodgson had assembled to fly out to Poland and Ukraine. Admittedly, the performances have hardly set the world alight, but Hodgson has emerged as the tactical winner in every game thus far – frustrating France, flipping the game against Sweden upside down, and easing past the tournament hosts Ukraine (albeit in a controversial manner). But as tactically competent as Hodgson has been, surely even he will admit to having a headache when it comes to figuring out how best to handle the unpredictable centre-forward.
Euro 2012 genuinely has been a true reflection of the bizarre character that is Mario Balotelli. In fact, his season could probably be summed up by 60 seconds of play against Republic of Ireland rather than the entire tournament. A familiar miserable look was deeply engraved in his features as he came on as a substitute – he’d lost his place after a dismal first couple of appearances. But in truly unpredictable fashion, he conjured up a moment of brilliance as he hooked an overhead-kick past goalkeeper Shay Given to cement Italy’s place in the quarter-finals. Instead of racing away to the Italy fans, he clambered to his feet, strolled a few yards, and then attempted to scream something at the Italian bench. Despite not understanding the English vocab splurred by Balotelli, teammate Leonardo Bonucci wrapped a hand around Mario’s mouth anyway – ultimately saving him from a completely unnecessary fine or punishment. The fact that Bonucci had no idea what his teammate was spouting, and still chose to censor the striker, is a clear indication of Balotelli’s infamous reputation in the footballing world.
Since arriving in Manchester in 2010 – already carrying the ‘controversial’ label after spats with Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan – Balotelli has been involved in some of the most bizarre incidents ever heard of in football. This has seen him achieve the status of ‘cult hero’ in Manchester (on the blue side at least) with rap artist Tinchy Stryder recording a song dedicated to the striker, and the City fans even creating a chant about his mad behaviour. Given some of his actions, it’s hardly surprising. When halted by police after a car collision, the authorities questioned him as to why he had large bundles of cash in his vehicle. His contrite reply – “Because I am rich” – hinted at the baffling behaviour that was to come. The reason as to why he drove into a women’s prison remains inexplicable to this day, as does his inability to put on a simple training bib during a pre-match warm up session. He was caught throwing training darts at youth players as part of a prank in March 2011, and ended up being an ambassador for fireworks safety after setting his own home alight the following October. There have also been stories of extreme generosity, such as giving homeless people large sums of money, whereas his supposed offer to pay off the University of Manchester Students library fines never had sufficient evidence to support it. But perhaps the most intriguing of Balotelli’s behaviour has come on the field – one minute spent blasting in wonderful goals, the next spent moping and sulking before getting substituted. Even his goal celebrations have been unusual. His memorable strike in the 6-1 drubbing of arch rivals Manchester United saw him stroll over to the camera to reveal a shirt labelled ‘Why Always Me?’ – a reply to the press who had tried to attribute any strange occurrences to the Italian. It’s gotten to the point now where you just never know if it is true or not, but with Balotelli, nine times out of ten it is a genuine possibility.
There have been countless incidents involving the Man City player this season – some true, some myth . But this familiar blend of class and controversy, reminiscent of the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Christiano Ronaldo, is very much apparent in Mario Balotelli. Although not without his share of red cards, he does not share the same category as the likes of Joey Barton; a reasonably talented player who’s off-field assaults and on-field two foot lunges suggest a life in isolation would be more suitable than a football star. Whilst it is evident that Balotelli clearly has some growing up to do, and his disciplinary record does need some improvement – he is no thug like Barton. He is an unpredictable and entertaining talent that, at aged just 21, has plenty of time to blossom further. He has been, and will remain to be, one of the most unpredictable players of all time. Will he break England’s hearts with a wonderful piece of skill or get bullied by John Terry and go into a sulk as he’s substituted? Literally impossible to call. Either way, it’ll be entertaining to watch.
England play Italy Sunday 24th June at 19.45.The winner will go into the semi-finals to play either Germany or surprise package Greece.
Mario Balotelli will be in contention for a starting place after his terrific goal against Ireland, if Bonucci’s censorship has proved successful.