Column: Balotelli can shake off clown tag in Italy

”A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma:” Winston

Churchill’s famous description of Russia could easily be applied to

Mario Balotelli.

With one important difference: Hidden inside the jumble of

myths, stories and questions that Balotelli lugs around with him is

a fabulous footballer. Is, not was. It will be great for him and

for football if he now gets to prove that again at AC Milan.

When headline-hungry tabloids were picking over his off-field

life in England and toward the end of his stint with Manchester

City, when he wasn’t playing or contributing as much to the team,

it became easy to forget just how thrilling Balotelli can be with a

ball at his feet, a player who not only can make fans stomp in

delight but also scratch their heads and laugh in disbelief.

Against Norwich City, remember that goal he scored with his

shoulder? Other strikers would have headed in the ball. Balotelli,

just to be safe, probably should have done, too.

Safe? How boring. Balotelli nudged it in with right shoulder,

cool as you like. Brilliant. Many goals are forgettable. That one

will live long in the memory. Balotelli’s unpredictability, his

downright craziness at times, makes him an entertaining if not

always reliable footballer and that is no bad thing.

As former Oasis star Noel Gallagher, a fan of the Italian, said

in one of Balotelli’s rare interviews in England: ”Footballers in

general in this country, they’re quite boring and dull and I love

you because you’re Balotelli and you make me smile.”

Standing out has also worked against Balotelli. In Manchester,

photographers kept their lenses trained on him because there was

always the chance that he would do something silly, perhaps fight

with a teammate or with manager Roberto Mancini. But when Balotelli

was just doing mundane things – stroking a cat, climbing into his

car with its custom camouflage exterior – photos of him still

helped pay the bills.

Balotelli courted attention. Allowing friends to let off

fireworks in his house and set fire to the toilet curtains in

October 2011 was a gift to newspaper headline writers. Doubly so

because this was before City’s astounding 6-1 defeat of cross-town

rival Manchester United, an epic match where Balotelli scored


But he was a victim of attention, too. The goldfish bowl of the

media spotlight isn’t an easy place for a 22-year-old to thrive.

Some of the stories about him were true. He is, for example,

allergic to dry grass and he really did come back with a trampoline

when his mother sent him out to buy an ironing board.

But he told Gallagher that many of the stories about him weren’t

true, that he didn’t once give 1,000 pounds to a homeless man,

drive around Manchester as Santa Claus or pay for everyone else’s

fuel as well as his own when he filled his car.

Balotelli, the footballer, got lost in this maelstrom of

stories. That was a shame.

Without Balotelli, City likely wouldn’t have won the Premier

League in 2012, ”the miracle of Manchester” wouldn’t have

happened. In the waning seconds of the season, with City locked at

2-2 with Queens Park Rangers and needing another goal to take the

title away from Manchester United, it was Balotelli who collected

the ball in front of QPR’s goal from Sergio Aguero.

Because of his strength, Balotelli he was able to hold off a

tackle. He started to fall the ground but was still lucid and quick

enough to swivel and flick the ball back to Aguero, into the path

of his Argentine teammate as he sprinted into space. Aguero scored.

The blue side of Manchester went delirious.

In the blue of Italy, Balotelli was also impressive at the

European Championship last year. He was earnest when he had to be.

He scored both Italian goals in a 2-1 semifinal victory over

Germany. After the second goal, he stripped off his jersey to show

off his tattooed, muscular body.

”If anyone is angry for my celebration, it’s because they saw

my physique and they’re jealous,” he said.

That was Balotelli at his best.

Back home in Italy, when he is closer to his family, it would be

gratifying if he can become that good again. Milan director Umberto

Gandini said the club’s agreement with City is dependent on

Balotelli passing a medical.

That Balotelli likes to clown around doesn’t make him a clown.

Now is his chance to have the last laugh.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at) or follow

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