Column: Balotelli, volatile? That is not a crime

When he fields Mario Balotelli, Manchester City manager Roberto

Mancini has an excuse ready, in case things go wrong. Because even

he seems unable to predict which Balotelli will show up to play:

the nonchalant striker of impressive goals or the young man who can

at times appear immature and as hard to manage as

nitroglycerine.

This weekend, at Liverpool, it was the latter. Mancini played

Balotelli as a second-half substitute, hoping his strength and

hammer of a right foot would produce the second goal City needed to

win and pull farther ahead of Manchester United at the top of the

English Premier League.

But after only 18 minutes, Balotelli was trudging forlornly back

to the dressing room, gently guided by a police officer in a

fluorescent yellow coat who put a protective arm around him.

Referee Martin Atkinson sent him off for two overzealous, but not

malicious, tussles for the ball, first with Glen Johnson and then

Martin Skrtel. The Slovakia defender rolled like a hooked fish on

the Anfield turf while his teammates claimed Balotelli had elbowed

him and bayed for punishment from Atkinson, who obliged.

With Balotelli gone, the score stayed 1-1 and the questions

began for Mancini. He and Balotelli, two Italians earning a good

living in the north of England, have something of a father-son

relationship. Mancini is patient and tolerant with Balotelli and

happily speaks about how much he likes him. Balotelli, who

previously played for tough drill sergeant Jose Mourinho at Inter

Milan, has repaid Mancini with trust, gratitude and important goals

this season when former captain Carlos Tevez has let down City so

badly.

Mancini said the second of Balotelli’s yellow cards on Sunday,

for his coming-together with Skrtel, was not deserved. Mancini also

used an excuse which is true but which has only a limited

shelf-life: ”Mario is young.”

At 21, Balotelli should be entitled to make a young man’s

mistakes.

It also is true that Balotelli’s mistakes often seem to garner a

disproportionate amount of attention. Other players make clumsy

tackles. Other players are shown yellow and red cards. But they are

not all described in newspaper reports as ”volatile,”

”unhinged,” ”mad,” or variations on the theme that Balotelli is

something of a fruit cake.

Balotelli shares some blame for that. Anyone who allows friends

to set off fireworks in a bathroom and start a fire in their rented

mansion or who pulls stunts like throwing a dart at a colleague is

going to get bad publicity. Deservedly so. But less deserved are

the reports that lampoon Balotelli’s fashion choices, that question

how he spends his money and spare time or which portray him as a

clown.

When he scored first in City’s 6-1 spanking of United in

October, Balotelli lifted up his jersey to reveal the words ”Why

always me?” written on a T-shirt underneath. It seemed funny at

the time but it also is actually a serious question.

Balotelli’s fortune is also his misfortune: Football made him

into a young millionaire but also means he is doing his growing up

in public and in the blowtorch glare of the tabloids. How much of

what we read about ”mad Mario” is actually true? Certainly not

all of it. How much is myth? A fair chunk.

When he traveled to the Faeroe Islands with the Italian national

team for a Euro 2012 qualifying match in September, Italian

football journalist and author Luigi Garlando was struck by the

fact that Balotelli was the only player to ask him why the

islanders grow turf on the roofs off their houses (it’s to provide

insulation and protect against storms). Garlondo, who writes for La

Gazzetta dello Sport, described Balotelli as ”very curious,”

”sensible” and ”not the guy that came from the tabloids.”

With the beauty and purity of his football, Balotelli also has

shamed racists in Italy who have showered him with slurs shouted

from the stands. They once wrote ”You are not a true Italian, you

are a black African” on the walls leading to the San Siro in Milan

where he used to play. Balotelli says he has learned through

experience that it is better to ignore the abuse. But he’s also

been quoted as saying that he would prefer the Italian media spend

more time debating racism in Italy and less time discussing his

girlfriends.

Balotelli’s first goal for the national team, against Poland in

a friendly match this month, was a 35-yard, right-footed work of

art that looped over the head of sprawling goalkeeper Wojciech

Szczesny. Molto bello. He celebrated by kissing the Italian flag on

his jersey. Italian media noted that Balotelli was the first black

Italian to score for the Azzurri and hailed him as a symbol for

Italy’s multiracial future, with La Gazetta using the phrase the

”United Colors of Italy.”

”Since he’s young and very likely to play in the national side

for a long time, the Italian people are going to become accustomed

to seeing a black Italian player in the national team,”

anti-racism campaigner Lilian Thuram, France’s most capped

footballer, said in an interview. ”Kids will grow up accepting

that a black person can be Italian.”

So Balotelli is carrying a lot of expectation on those muscular

but still young shoulders of his. He is going to make mistakes. He

may make a fool of himself at times. But he is also going to score

a lot of goals, too.

Mancini knows which of those is more important. And he’s got the

excuses ready to smooth things over just in case.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

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

him at twitter.com/johnleicester