Time to grow up – will badboy Balotelli be the next Rijkaard or Edmundo?

The Milan striker is in danger of wasting his significant talent but there are both positive and negative examples that the Palermo native can learn from

By Kris Voakes

It may have been the first time he failed to score from the penalty spot but in so many other ways Sunday night’s clash with Napoli at San Siro was a microcosm of Mario Balotelli’s career.

With the visitors grabbing an early lead, AC Milan were left looking for match-winners within their ranks from the first few minutes and unflinchingly turned to the tall figure in the No.45 shirt. Balotelli’s response was to lead from the front, making plenty more chances for himself and those around him, taking down one great ball from a one-two before drilling a shot against the bar in one of the more dangerous moments. In injury time, he scored an inevitable goal which through no fault of his own proved insufficient to earn a point for his side.

That was one side of ‘Super Mario’.

The other side was also a regular sight. Throughout the game, Balotelli tested referee Luca Banti and his assistants with both his mouth and his actions. A mix of great skill and the tendency to look for contact from opponents made it difficult for the officials to separate the wrong from the wronged, leaving Banti with a thankless task much of the time. And whenever the call didn’t go Milan’s way, the Italy striker was invariably in the referee’s ear. It was a constant dialogue.

Edmundo was photographed making a chimp drink alcohol after hiring a circus to perform at a party

The full-time whistle came seconds after the latest in a long run of clashes with Napoli’s Valon Behrami, further raising Mario’s internal temperature. In overheating, he confronted Banti once too often and earned a red card and three-match ban in the process. It is concerning that even after one of his more convincing displays on the ball, people are left talking about the negative points once more.

Balotelli’s story is not an unfamiliar one. There are examples wherever you care to look of quality young players with an attitude, but those who have failed to put a cap on the surly disposition or off-field antics have often fallen by the wayside.

Edmundo was known in Brazil as ‘The Animal’ because of an inability to keep his temper under wraps and the inevitable string of suspensions which followed. After being kicked out of Botafogo for constant misbehaviour, he first showed his immense ability at Vasco da Gama. Brazilians lauded his talent as one of the greatest in the country during the 90s, but his temper and off-field difficulties would help to ensure he would never been seen in the same light as the likes of Bebeto and Rivaldo.

He would win a tremendous amount during his career, but never reached the heights he could have, regularly falling out with coaches and team-mates. He was sent off seven times in a single year at one stage, while he was also photographed making a chimpanzee drink alcohol after hiring a circus to perform at a party in the grounds of his house.

A former team-mate of Balotelli, Adriano, had similar difficulties after blasting into world consciousness with Parma and Inter. The ex-Flamengo man grabbed 40 goals in his first 18 months following Inter’s purchase of the second half of his contract from their fellow Serie A outfit, but soon after he began to cause worry within the club because of his late returns from international duty and inability to retain a consistent weight thanks to his partying lifestyle. A loan spell at Sao Paulo failed to return Adriano to his former glories and when his difficulties continued, the striker spoke of a potential early retirement because of depression.

Despite a brief renaissance in Flamengo’s 2009 championship-winning side, the Brazilian’s attitude had not changed. He was said to be fraternising with drug dealers from his local area and was photographed holding guns, taking team-mates along with him to parties and even once picked up an injury during one wild night. Poor spells at Roma and Corinthians effectively ended his career, with the 31-year-old having now not played for two years. Recent pictures of Adriano show a bloated version of the one-time child star.

One famous story in Brazil has recently been transferred to celluloid, with the life and times of Heleno de Freitas being portrayed in the 2011 film ‘Heleno’. The eponymous hero was the great young hope of the country’s football scene of the 1930s and 40s, but constant clashes with team-mates and club management would help to undermine his career. His wild lifestyle was summed up in 1949 when he held an unloaded gun to his Vasco coach Flavio Costa’s head.

But while names such as Paolo Di Canio, George Best and Antonio Cassano are also held up as examples of what can happen to a talented youngster who doesn’t focus on righting his wrongs, there are those who have overcome their demons to form fantastic careers for themselves.

Diego Maradona was believed to be just as likely to end up on the scrapheap as be a world superstar during his formative years thanks to his own demons. Having left the 1982 World Cup in disgrace after his sending-off against Brazil, he fell out with management at Barcelona and was also involved in a huge fight in a clash against Athletic Bilbao, all of which was played to the backdrop of a significant cocaine addiction. But he turned his life around enough to experience sustained success at Napoli in 1984, leading them to two Scudetti and almost single-handedly won Argentina the World Cup in 1986. His vices would return later in his career, but he had overcome his troubles enough to be considered one of the game’s greatest ever players.

One less repeated story is that of Frank Rijkaard. The Dutchman debuted for his national side as a teenager, but his temperament, hatred of authority and countless arguments with management, especially his Ajax coach Johan Cruyff, looked like it would stop him fulfilling his significant talent. But his switch to Milan brought out the best in him, helping him to grow as a person and player to become one of the best midfielders in the world. Occasional problems would still arise, notably in his confrontation with Rudi Voller at the 1990 World Cup which ended with him spitting at the West Germany striker, but he will go down as one of the greatest midfield enforcers in history thanks to his ability to overcome his early problems.

So there are good examples as well as bad ones which Balotelli could yet follow. At just 23, he has many years ahead of him, but more confrontations with opponents, fans and officialdom, along with more extra-curricular fireworks, can only add road blocks to a career which could otherwise reach the stratosphere. Will Mario go on to become Italy’s greatest ever goalscorer, or the subject of another oft-told story of wasted talent? Either way, the next decade promises to be one hell of a ride.

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