Balotelli must be loved and not hounded for the sake of the Premier League

COMMENT
By Jay Jaffa

The fall-out from Mario Balotelli’s latest controversy was as swift and brutal as we have come to expect from the most opinion-dividing footballer in Britain. Twitter exploded with outrage as photographs emerged from Manchester City’s Thursday training session of the maverick Italian striker tussling with his manager Roberto Mancini.

That Balotelli stopped to sign autographs for City fans after his training ground bust-up suggests that the so-called bad boy may not have been expecting the storm in the tea cup that followed though.

Of course, that important detail of the scuffle went unreported, as did the reason for the clash – a petulant trip on Scott Sinclair – but it is what we have come to expect from the Balotelli circus.

There are few, if any, sportsmen who create such fantastic headlines with ceaseless regularity. Muhammad Ali was cited by the journalist Robert Lipsyte as providing such good copy that it felt like “the journalistic equivalent of an easy lay”. While Balotelli is far from the greatest footballer in the world and in danger of compromising his career with every passing charade, the sentiment rings true in the modern press.

The headlines seem less about the details, instead drawing every ounce of drama from the love/hate relationship between Mancini and his protege. That the latest incident occurred just a matter of days into the January transfer window will ignite further rumours of his departure from Manchester, further filling column inches and in turn ensuring he remains the most discussed footballer on these shores.

From letting off fireworks in his bathroom to the Instagram photo of him standing between a camouflage Bentley and quad bike in a camouflage onesie, he has entertained us, albeit in a uniquely unprofessional manner.

But it is a sad state of affairs if Thursday’s clash with Mancini heralds his departure from the Premier League champions. The situation has been blown out of proportion, emphasised by the numerous current and ex-footballers, including Gary Neville, who have stood up for the striker, insisting that training ground bust-ups are part and parcel of the modern football club.

He is far from an angel and has made mistakes here and in Italy, yet the constant haranguing of his private life and on-pitch mishaps strike too close to the bone. Balotelli is box office entertainment, a ‘character’ that the modern game so sorely lacks. We as football fans, bemoan the bland, cliched interviews media-trained players deliver and then unleash volumes of abuse at the one man with the courage, disposition and self-assurance to speak frankly and act impulsively.

It seems odd also, that Mancini regularly receives a pass for his actions, the strained manifestations of a man under pressure seemingly acceptable despite evidence suggesting that he, rather than Balotelli, is the root of City’s problems as they aim to retain their crown.

Balotelli spoke to the BBC, during a rare interview, of being an intensely private individual. He rarely goes looking for trouble, instead it finds him – especially more recently. Yet there is a boyish charm to Balotelli, a reckless abandon to his decision making that makes for great news but is sadly hindering his progression.

But it is easy to forget that he is still just 22-years-old. In Britain, we have grown accustomed to young footballers emerging in Premier League first teams, before being thrust in front of the media limelight and swiftly given the briefing needed to mumble their way through interviews. If they pose a problem, there is very little leeway given.

Take Ravel Morrison as an example. At Manchester United, it was widely accepted that Sir Alex Ferguson viewed him as the biggest talent in the FA Youth Cup winning side of 2010-11, but that did not prevent the Scot from discarding him at the age of 18, such were the concerns with his attitude in training and at home.

As yet, Balotelli, a throwback to more spellbinding times, remains in Manchester but he may feel unfortunate that his biggest supporter is also his harshest critic. Mancini has never come across as the most tactile of coaches – often launching into tirades at his players – his reaction to Joe Hart’s frank and honest autopsy of the 3-2 loss at the Bernabeu is a ripe example. Oddly enough, when one of his players does deserve a grilling – Samir Nasri’s stupidity in earning a red card against Norwich comes to mind – Mancini is protective.

Balotelli may act like an idiot, but he remains a loveable idiot. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his former Inter team-mate and another problematic character, suggested that Balotelli must be loved if he is to be a success at City. Ibrahimovic no doubt empathises with Balotelli, a man with a background as complex and troublesome as the Swede, but one wonders whether it is too late.

His advice may be best adopted by the footballing public though. For if we are to keep the game the source of entertainment it is meant to be, taking the time to appreciate and love the eccentric renegade from Sicily may be the only option.

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Cartoon of the Day: Mancini finally explodes after reaching Balotelli boiling point

Roberto Mancini has stood by Mario Balotelli through all the fireworks in the bathroom, red cards, camouflaged Bentleys and grass allergies.

But tensions finally seemed to come to a head at Manchester City’s training ground on Thursday, when Mancini took exception to a tackle by the striker on Scott Sinclair, leading to a physical altercation.

However, despite the fireworks at Carrington, Mancini does not appear to have severed ties entirely with the striker.

“Will Mario have more chances? I will give him 100 chances as long as I can see him trying to improve and working hard for this football club,” he told reporters on Friday morning.

Mancini explodes after reaching Balotelli boiling point

'I would give Balotelli 100 chances' – Mancini plays down clash with Manchester City striker

Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has played down Thursday’s training ground bust-up with striker Mario Balotelli.

Photographs emerged of the two clashing after Mancini was unhappy with a challenge by Balotelli on team-mate Scott Sinclair, and the two had to be separated by assistant manager Brian Kidd along with other members of the club’s backroom staff.

However, the 48-year-old has played down the incident and insists the matter is over with.

“Mario made a tackle on his team-mate that I would prefer to see in a game and not against a team-mate,” Mancini told reporters.

“I asked him to leave the pitch – he said ‘no’ so I moved him off. That’s all that happened and it was nothing more than that.

“Nothing has changed between Mario and me and my thoughts have not changed about him and these things happen from time to time.

“Will Mario have more chances? I will give him 100 chances as long as I can see him trying to improve and working hard for this football club.”

It is not the first time the two have clashed during their time together and Mancini admits he did briefly lose his temper with the 22-year-old.

He added: “For two seconds, yes. Three, four seconds later no. He didn’t want to leave pitch. No fight.”

The manager said there would be no disciplinary action over the incident and said he considered it to be over and dealt with.

Zola would relish the challenge of managing Balotelli

Watford manager Gianfranco Zola says he would like the challenge of managing controversial Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli.

The City striker has made the headlines again this week after a clash with manager Roberto Mancini in training, but the Hornets boss says he sees similarities between the two.

“Roberto [Mancini] was quite a character as a player. But maybe he wasn’t that crazy,” Zola told The Mirror.

“He had his own beliefs, but sometimes it’s the strong personalities who produce the things other players can’t do on the pitch.

“Balotelli does things which maybe look strange through our eyes, but for him they are normal. He has an unbelievable quality, and the secret of management is handling players like him.

“The challenge would be to work on him and make him more reliable, that makes perfect sense to me!”

Watford travel to Etihad Stadium on Saturday in the third round of the FA Cup and Zola says he is hopeful his side can give the champions a tough test.

“Roberto was a pain in the butt to play against,” he added.

“He was so good, so talented and such an intelligent player. But I wanted to kick him a few times when we were opponents because we are both so competitive.

“And it’s no different as managers. I am proud of my team and would love to see them give the Premier League champions a good game.

Fireworks, fights & 'Why Always Me': the highs and lows of Balotelli's Manchester City career in pictures

By Miles Chambers and Joe Doyle

Mario Balotelli has become one the most controversial characters in the Premier League and, although his Manchester City performances are not always up to scratch, you can depend on his antics to attract attention.

Ever since his arrival in England he has been making a name for himself on and off the pitch for his behaviour, both good and bad.

But the latest incident, a training ground clash with manager Roberto Mancini, is perhaps the most shocking of all. Goal.com takes a moment to look back at the maddest moments of Balotelli’s time at the Etihad Stadium.

12 August 2010 – Balotelli signs for City

New Blue | Mario Balotelli, already with a reputation as a controversial character, signs for an estimated £20 million from Inter

2010-11 Season – Balotelli struggles for starting role

 Balo on the Bench | His potential was undisputed, but the striker was behind Carlos Tevez and, eventually, Edin Dzeko in the pecking order

August 16, 2011 – Mario loves Manchester

Manchester Love-in | After being quoted as saying that he is not a fan of Manchester, the colourful character scribbled over this t-shirt in a joking put-down of those who wondered whether he might be leaving the Etihad Stadium

October 22, 2011 – Bathroom fireworks