Monday, 14 November 2011

What a difference a summer makes.

Last season he was almost everyone's favourite pantomime villain, hounded by the press with numerous stories fabricated to negatively impact on the public's perception of him. Even his time on the pitch saw him pick up more cards than goals, partly due to Mario and partly due to his reputation. Certain things he said in answer to interviewers were twisted and misquoted to make it sound like he wanted to move back to Italy at the drop of a hat.

What a difference a summer makes eh? A few months into the season and he's the new media darling, no longer on the receiving end of vitriolic rants by journalists, opposition fans, and (sad to say) certain sections of City fans who were all eager for him to be shipped off back to Italy on the earliest possible flight.

As the season started there were questions as to whether Balo would feature much for City with the signing of Aguero making him effectively 4th choice at the time. Some journalists thought he would end up causing a scene and throw a strop etc etc. but that never transpired. Instead Mancini openly praised him for his attitude in training and his patience in waiting for his chance on the pitch which instantly put him ahead of a certain other person who will not be mentioned in this article. Since that chance came in the Carling Cup against Birmingham and then as a second half substitute against Everton in the Premiership he (and the media) hasn't looked back.

Evidence that public perception had quickly swung in his favour came when we had the bangers out of the bathroom window incident (which Mario says was his brother's friend) which was greeted with amusement rather than frustration and anger. And in true City irony, Mario was then announced as a spokesperson for firework safety! You really couldn't make it up.

But thankfully that is the only real headline Mario has made off the pitch this season, despite a couple of lame attempts otherwise by some journalists. No, most of the headlines concerning Mario have been borne from his performances on the pitch, and rightly so as every part of his game has improved from last season.

He has so far scored 7 goals for City in all competitions and has even scored his first goal at full international level. Not only are the goals coming thick and fast, they're quality goals. Sure there's been a few tap ins but when you look at his 1st against Manchester United, the overhead kick against Aston Villa, amongst others including his first international goal against Poland you see the kind of ability he has. Not only this, but you will not find a cooler penalty taker anywhere in the world.

One of the people outside of football that we have to thank is his adoptive father, Franco Balotelli. The man that (along with his wife) nurtured and encouraged a young Mario through his early years of his career which started at the age of 11. Franco, talking to Gazzetta dello Sport, told us he was the first person Mario spoke to after Italy's game against Poland;
"Mario phoned me straight after the game and his first question is always: 'How did I play, Dad?' I replied: 'This time I give you 8 out of 10. Not for the goal, but because you played for the team. Well done.'"

And in that very short quote we see what drives Mario. He thrives on the approval of those he loves and is closest too. I don't doubt for one minute that he couldn't care less if most people think negatively of him, but that is a very different story when it comes to those closest to him and who are most important in his life.

As for who has guided Balotelli on the pitch, we only have to look in one place, Roberto Mancini. Bobby has stuck by him through thin and thinner but Balo is now starting to repay that in a big way. In the past and indeed recently, Roberto has been labelled too austere, arrogant and autocratic in his approach to management, although I feel that may be more of a reflection on today's pampered prima donnas within football and managers that pander to their needs.

But what does Mario think of the strict Italian?

"Mancini is like a dad to me. Mancini wants me so I have to be one of the best in the squad, so I don't disappoint him."

And there it is again, Mario wants to be better so he doesn't disappoint someone who has invested a lot of time and faith in him. Not quite the selfish and egotistical reprobate the media would have had us believe last season is it?

From being a young child, Mario has loved Italy and dreamed of playing for them at international level. But at one time it may have appeared that he would never be accepted as a true Italian due to the colour of his skin. Balotelli was subjected to racist chants on several occasion by fellow Italians, most notably Juventus fans. Juventus were even forced to play matches behind closed doors because of persistent racist chanting directed towards Mario. In the particular incident that got them banned Juventus were playing Napoli at the time

Another notable case which gives you more of a sense of what Balotelli was up against was when he was fined €7000 for "provoking" Chievo fans by clapping to them as he was substituted. Throughout the match Balotelli was subjected to racist chants and picked up what Mourinho called a "naive yellow card". Chievo Veron were never questioned regarding those chants.

This kind of racism it quite blatantly obvious, although when he was younger he was subjected to it in a more furtive manner. In one of the very few interviews he gave whilst at Internazionale he describes; "Two things were close to my heart, like all boys at a certain age: girls and getting attention.

"But it was like I was transparent. I'm no Clooney but I couldn't explain it why I was ignored. My friends explained. They told me people didn't like blacks."

As a young football player, Balo had the opportunity to play for Ghana due to the nationality of his natural parents, but he considers himself to be Italian having been born in Palermo in the South of Italy. Despite his birthplace and due to Italian law ,Balotelli was denied Italian citizenship until he was 18 years old which meant that he was never picked for any of the national Italian U17 sides. Although this is nothing to do with racism it would be easy for a young boy like Mario was at the time to feel ever more rejected by the country he loves.

After a general feeling of being invisible as a child, potential feelings of rejection from his own country as well as lingering animosity towards his natural parents who Mario feels didn't want to know him until he made it as a footballer which has also been documented, is it really any surprise that he now has a bit of an eccentric character? As much as he likes his privacy, some of the crazy things he's done in the past have perhaps unwittingly been done out of a desire just to be noticed by others.

It appears all Mario needed was convincing he was wanted. His family have always provided that, but on a professional level it has been Mancini who has provided him with the most stability. Those City fans who stuck with him through his first season will no doubt be feeling a sense of satisfaction that their own affections for striker are being repaid. It's no secret that Mario loves the 'Balotelli Song' as he has said so on more than one occasion and as I mentioned in another article it is one of the things that has helped Mario feel more at home here.

Despite his obvious love for Italy, perhaps unsurprisingly the same can't be said for Serie A. He has recently told the press "I don't miss Seria A at all. Zero.

"The Premier League is beautiful, and I play for the strongest team in England. I want to remain at City. I don't see a return to play in Italy in the future."

He did say that if conditions were right in the future such as "calm fans, and people who don't want to smash my car in the city centre" then a return to Inter may be possible at some point in the future. But Mario reiterated "For now, though, I'm not thinking about leaving England."

Despite this sudden change in application on the pitch, I'm not sure I'd ever want Balotelli to become 'normal' like every other player as he just wouldn't be the same player City fans have become attached to. I'm not actually sure he could become like everyone else even if he wanted to.

Balotelli almost provides a link to the 'old' or 'typical' City way of doing things. The City where you didn't know whether they were going to turn up and play their hearts out or capitulate and fall apart like a digestive biscuit dipped into a cup of tea. To some extent a lot of fans still have that typical City mentality, old habits die hard so they say. But more and more fans are growing in confidence that the boys will walk out onto the pitch and put in a shift, no matter what; win, lose or draw.

I absolutely adore Balotelli, he's a wonderfully enigmatic character with huge talent and almost unlimited potential. Yet no matter how well he's been playing there will always be that part tucked away in the back of your mind that will suddenly awaken when you look at the team sheet or see him ready to come on that says "God I hope the right Balo has turned up."

That's the beauty of Mario, he excites and exhilarates like no other player in the squad because he always carries that element of risk and danger. Football as a whole would be a much duller place without him. Hopefully he'll be sticking around Manchester for many years to come.

Twitter: @MikeWalsh1880
Facebook: David Silva's Left Foot

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