Stop bullying Balotelli! Shameful scapegoating of Liverpool striker must end now

The ex-Milan man may be in dreadful form but the stream of abuse he’s been subjected to by the English and Italian football community is akin to bullying and must stop

By Carlo Garganese

Let’s be very clear from the outset: Mario Balotelli’s recent CV is hardly glowing with positive references.

The 24-year-old has made numerous mistakes, both on and off the pitch, since first bursting into the public consciousness as a teenage sensation in 2008. He has set off fireworks in his bathroom, racked up a lifetime’s supply of parking tickets, fought in training with team-mates and coaches, adorned the shirt of his club’s city rivals on live television – the list of misdemeanours go on and on.

There is also no denying that Balotelli’s footballing career has taken a sharp nosedive since his brilliant performances for Italy at Euro 2012. His 18-month spell at Milan was a disappointment, as was his World Cup experience in Brazil, while the start to his Liverpool career has been dreadful with just one goal in 11 appearances.

Balotelli deserves to be scrutinised just like any other under-performing footballer but does he merit the level of scorn and ridicule that he has been constantly subjected to over the past weeks and months?

No doubt, the striker often attracts attention and thus opens himself up to criticism. Some of his social media posts have been ill-advised and immature – such as the image of him aiming a gun at the camera or the picture of him filling up his Italy Panini World Cup page with Balotelli pictures. Like a Hollywood movie actress who complains about the paparazzi door-stepping her only to then throw herself into the spotlight when she needs to sell her latest movie, Balotelli could certainly help himself by lowering his profile.

The problem is that Balotelli is never going to be left alone. “[There is so much media coverage of me] because Mario moves money and sells newspapers,” he told GQ magazine recently.

The current narrative, though, in large sections of the English and Italian press is to bully and isolate Balotelli.

The furore last week surrounding Balotelli’s shirt swap with Pepe as Liverpool trailed Real Madrid 3-0 is a perfect example of how things have got out of hand. For days, the incident permeated the British paper columns and the airwaves as Balotelli was pilloried from all angles from pundits such as Graeme Souness, Jamie Redknapp and Mark Lawrenson.

The Liverpool Echo went as far as to demand that Balotelli apologise to the club as he had insulted his manager, team-mates and supporters. Brendan Rodgers has largely handled the incident well, but it didn’t stop him from publicly rebuking his player.

Very few people stopped to think, or rather cared, that exchanging jerseys at half-time is perfectly normal in many European countries, and a form of fair play. While Balotelli perhaps should have known that his behaviour is not part of British culture, did his naivety warrant such a poisonous stream of abuse from journalists, ex-footballers and members of the twittersphere?

The truth is that Balotelli is an easy target and, as Hull City manager Steve Bruce suggested on Saturday, he is being made a convenient scapegoat, a “whipping boy”, for problems that he is only partly responsible for.

Liverpool are struggling this season for many reasons. They have sold one of the best players in the world in Luis Suarez, lost their star man Daniel Sturridge to injury and are now suffering from the progressive decline of their club legend Steven Gerrard. They have a goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, who is out of his depth at the highest level, a centre-back, Dejan Lovren, who turns slower than a ferry and an increased fixture list that makes it impossible to employ the intense tempo that brought them success last term.

Yet the only person who is being singled out is Mario.

“The press just show Mario in a bad light. I never read English papers. They make up crazy stories and get into my private life too much,” Balotelli has complained.

The current targeting of Balotelli is nothing new, of course. Last season, Milan endured a disastrous campaign as they finished eighth in Serie A. Never mind the fact that the Rossoneri’s transfer market consisted of signing Alessandro Matri and Cristian Zapata for a combined €18m along with the customary free transfer cast-offs such as Kaka, Valter Birsa and Michael Essien. Never mind that Massimiliano Allegri and then Clarence Seedorf had to work with the weakest Milan squad in 30 years ago. And never mind that Stephan El Shaarawy was injured for almost the entire campaign.

No, the fault all lay with Mario, even though he scored 19 goals in all competitions – his best ever return for a season – and no other Milan player even reached double figures in Serie A.

President Silvio Berlusconi infamously branded Balotelli a “bad apple”, while Ignazio Abate and new coach Pippo Inzaghi both fired parting shots after his transfer to Liverpool was completed. These sentiments have been regularly echoed by others in the Italian football fraternity. Even footballers who have no link to Balotelli, like Sampdoria’s Stefano Chuka Okaka, can’t resist having a pop at the ex-Milan “failure”.

And then there was Italy’s humiliating group stage exit at the World Cup. Forget the disastrous performance of coach Cesare Prandelli – now on the verge of the sack at Galatasaray – who tinkered with 11 different formations in two years, inexplicably axed Marco Verratti against Costa Rica, and fielded a player slower than Dejan Lovren himself (Antonio Cassano) as his lone frontman in the do-or-die group decider versus Uruguay. Forget the abysmal refereeing in that game by Marco Rodriguez, who at 0-0 sent off Claudio Marchisio for an innocuous challenge and somehow missed Luis Suarez biting a chunk out of Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder.

Instead, the easiest thing to do was slaughter Balotelli – even though he had scored the winner against England. A long list of Italy players past and present immediately queued up to slam him, including Mauro Camoranesi, Fabio Cannavaro and Salvatore Schillaci. Prandelli criticised Balotelli before he resigned, the only player he singled out, while Daniele De Rossi blasted: “We need real men, not Panini stickers”. Even the president of the Italian Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago, who is supposed to be impartial, branded Balotelli a disappointment.

Amidst all the madness, fortunately one former footballer – 2006 World Cup winner Massimo Oddo – has seen some sense.

“Balotelli being attacked? If things go badly it’s absurd to think that it’s only one person’s fault,” he said recently.

Oddo’s words perfectly sum up the scapegoating of Balotelli in 2014.

The abuse has been relentless and ruthless, and would be enough to break most grown men – let alone a sensitive African-Italian who still carries the baggage of a difficult cultural upbringing.

And during a time when there has been a big campaign in countries such as England to stamp out online bullying and twitter trolls who have targeted celebrities, the treatment of Balotelli reeks of double standards.

“Are we losing Mario?” was the headline of Gazzetta dello Sport back in March when Balotelli had his character assassinated after he was filmed crying against Napoli. If the persecution continues, we risk losing Mario for good.

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