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City unloads problem child Balotelli

Video: Italian striker Mario Balotelli on his way to Serie A giants AC Milan.
Video: Italian striker Mario Balotelli on his way to Serie A giants AC Milan.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Mario Balotelli and Manchester City. From the very start the pairing resembled a splashy but ill-advised wedding, the splendor of which couldn’t mask the incompatibility of the couple.

On the one hand, there was Balotelli, who turned 20 the day the union was announced. The tempestuous but unfathomably talented Ghanaian-Italian striker already was flashing warning signs of his eccentricity and had been deemed uncoachable by his former manager. That would be Jose Mourinho, famed for his ability to handle difficult characters.

On the other, there was Roberto Mancini, who had preceded Mourinho at Inter Milan and now managed Manchester City. The former Italy superstar has a legendary temper and was known to be uninterested in nurturing players, instead using them as inanimate pieces in his grand game of tactical chess. Yet, Mancini was convinced he could change Balotelli.

In hopes of realizing towering ambitions, City had loaded up on superstars in anticipation of the 2010-11 season, meaning all of them would have to take a backseat to their peers as often as not. Balotelli, however junior he was, had long since announced in both word and deed his distaste for watching games from the sidelines.

The spark was put to the fuse, and two and a half seasons of fireworks followed. On Tuesday, AC Milan announced that it had purchased Balotelli for some $27 million, more or less what City had paid Inter for him.

When he was 3, serious medical complications to his intestines forced Mario Burwah’s poor Ghanaian parents to give up their son, born on Sicily, to a wealthy foster family that could afford his care — the Balotellis. He recovered, grew to a powerful 6 feet 2 and by his 15th birthday had made his debut in Italy’s third professional tier.

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Barcelona gave Balotelli a tryout but passed. Inter didn’t. He played his first Serie A game at 17. At just 18 and 85 days, he scored his first UEFA Champions League goal. But as soon as his immense talent surfaced, so did his complicated character.

Balotelli’s commitment and discipline were so lacking that Mourinho, whom Balotelli once allegedly scuffled with, saw no choice but to suspend him for long stretches of time. At City, the bad attitude and penchant for pointless fouls were joined by the strangeness. Just days after signing City, Balotelli crashed his sports car. When police arrived and asked him why he was carrying 5,000 pounds in cash, he replied with the disarming simplicity that would come to define his English tenure: “Because I am rich.”

In the next two years, Balotelli would walk into a women’s prison to “have a look around”; throw darts at a youth player; visit a high school to use the bathroom; get caught toggling on his iPad while on the bench for Italy; wear the jersey of Inter’s arch-rivals AC Milan (somewhat presciently) on national Italian television; and set his own house alight with fireworks. There were reports that he gave a homeless man 1,000 pounds on a whim and confronted a bully on behalf of a young fan. Balotelli’s outsized personality blurred the lines between fact and myth. Tellingly, when a (still unconfirmed) rumor surfaced that he had dressed up as Santa Claus and driven through Manchester handing people money, it struck nobody as implausible.

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On the field, meanwhile, Balotelli was maddeningly rash and could be so savage in his tackling that ejections — he was sent off four times in just 23 league appearances last season — and further disciplinary action invariably followed. Yet his peerless pairing of athletic brawn and delicate touch made him instrumental in City’s run to the Premier League championship in 2011-12. He scored 13 goals despite missing 11 games throughout the season because of suspensions. As if to underscore his incontrovertibility, he revealed an undershirt reading “Why always me?” after scoring a vital goal against crosstown rival Manchester United.

Yet through it all, Mancini unabashedly kept the press abreast of his exasperation with his pupil. Their relationship frayed right underneath the glare of the British media. Balotelli would refuse Mancini’s outstretched hand when he was subbed off and head straight for the locker room rather than watch the remainder of the game from the bench, as is customary. On several occasions, Mancini declared him “crazy” and announced that he’d no longer be deploying him. Yet Balotelli always resurfaced on the strength of the irresistible promise his talent holds.

Not this time. An early-January shoving match with Mancini during practice, after Balotelli was told to leave but refused to, proved the final straw.

His legacy in England will be one of weaponized weirdness and of potential unfulfilled. Yet these turbulent times made him a cult hero in a country that craves them. And the spectacle was so sumptuous that his name was just as much of a fixture around the water cooler as athletes there on merit, such as Spanish league deities Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

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If he achieved nothing else, Balotelli kept English soccer interesting and siphoned off some of the focus on Barcelona and Real Madrid’s titanic struggle. Balotelli always got people talking. And therein lay a real value to the Premier League, in a counterintuitive sort of way, loath as it surely would be to admit it.

Perhaps the undershirt should have asked: “Are you not entertained?”

 

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for the New York Times, the Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderOnFOX.

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