Mario Balotelli has talent but Liverpool will have to work at making the pros outweigh the cons on his return to the Premier League
It goes back a few years now, but you might remember the old television commercial for Allied Dunbar that Jamie Carragher mentioned the other day, with its version of Irving Berlin’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance and the little scene that unfolds when a man is shaving in the bathroom mirror and finds a pregnancy test at the back of the medicine cabinet. The man is still covered in foam as he marches downstairs to confront his daughters, and that is the point when his wife intervenes. “I think we’re the ones who should have been more careful,” she says. Then the music starts: “There may be trouble ahead …”
This was Carragher’s response to the news that Liverpool had decided the good did outweigh the bad when it came to Mario Balotelli and that he was worth a punt. It was a decent price, he said, but he couldn’t help think back to that advert: a settled family taking in the news that a new arrival was on the way and trying to be happy despite that nagging sense that, yes, it might change their lives for their better, but it would also need an awful lot of energy.
Balotelli cost Manchester City £22.5m when he signed from Internazionale in 2010. He was sold to Milan for £19m and his transfer value is now £16m.
Liverpool would like to think they have got themselves a steal, and maybe they have when Shane Long has gone from Hull City to Southampton for £12m and Fulham somehow thought Leeds United’s Ross McCormack was worth £11m. Another way of looking at it, however, is that footballers’ transfer fees do not generally depreciate if their careers are on the rise. At this stage of his career, Balotelli should be a £50m player, maybe even higher.
Instead, there is always that sense of someone who has stayed too young too long. The comedian Jean Kittson once asked: “What’s the use of having a totally gorgeous body like Victoria Principal if you’ve got a mind like Victoria Principal?”
And the same type of question applies to Balotelli. What’s the use being that talented if there is something, north of his feet, that means it comes out only in sporadic flashes in between all the not-so-good stuff?
Liverpool will learn very quickly they have to spend an inordinate amount of time on him. They will like to think, age-wise, he is capable of better life choices at 24 than when he was 20 but for their own sake they should probably know the best policy with Balotelli is always to keep an open mind. It would be wrong to assume he will foul up but, equally, it won’t be easy for Brendan Rodgers, or indeed Liverpool’s psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters, bearing in mind the number of managers, team-mates, advisers and relatives who have tried to knock some sense into Balotelli and ended up wanting to drop a flowerpot on his head. He will always let you down at some point or another. The secret is trying to bring out the good bits the rest of the time.
Gazzetta dello Sport has just calculated that in 568 days at Milan he made them 788 different headlines. Mario Sconcerti, writing in Corriere della Sera, neatly summed up the Balotelli phenomenon as “the strange talent of making everyone happy when he arrives and even happier when he leaves”.
Balotelli might prove to be a bargain when he is only the fourth most expensive signing at Liverpool this summer, behind Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Lazar Markovic. Yet there must be a reason why Christian Vieri says this is possibly the best piece of business in Milan’s history. Sconcerti was right: there are champagne corks when Balotelli signs, but they neck the whole bottle when he is gone.
Liverpool have been sensible to stipulate there are behaviour clauses in his contract (even if this is fairly standard practice) but they will discover there is plenty to like about Balotelli as well. Roberto Mancini, his former manager at City, used to describe him as crazy and flick his fingers beneath his own chin, in that Italian way, but only because he cared about his player. Pablo Zabaleta would shake his head and wonder if “his brain is gone, absolutely” but again it was fondness, mostly, in his voice. Even José Mourinho, whose relationship with Balotelli at Inter often drifted between cold and Arctic, seems to remember the player he once described as “unmanageable” with a degree of affection.
Mourinho reckons his book of Balotelli anecdotes would stretch to 200 pages and the one he likes to tell the most is a belter. “We went to play Rubin Kazan in the Champions League. All my other strikers were injured. No Diego Milito, no Samuel Eto’o. I was really in trouble. Mario got a yellow card in the 42nd minute and when I got into the dressing room at half-time I spent 14 minutes of the 15 available speaking to Mario. I said to him: ‘Mario, I can’t change you, I have no strikers on the bench, don’t touch anybody and play only the ball. Mario, if someone provokes you, don’t react. If we lose the ball, no reaction. If the referee makes a mistake, no reaction.” A pause. “The 46th minute: red card.”
This, fundamentally, is the issue with Luis Suárez’s replacement and it is the same question that used to be asked of his predecessor but in a different context: can he be trusted?
Before everything went sour at City, Mancini was convinced greatness had been thrust on Balotelli. The problem, I always felt, was that Balotelli must have ducked out of the way. A small thing, perhaps, but Google “Balotelli training hard” to find the old YouTube clip of the Milan squad running around the side of a pitch at their training ground. One by one, they have to jog through cones then jump over a series of low hurdles. It is nothing too strenuous – the hurdles are barely six inches off the ground – but Balotelli is having one of his W-for-whatever days. He moves in between the cones, sees what is coming and, accidentally on purpose, misses out the jumps, nonchalantly jogging past while his team-mates complete the exercise. It’s 15 seconds of classic Mario.
At City, the coaches recall how they would give him DVDs to swot up on the opposition then realise he was watching Laurel and Hardy movies instead. They remember him being fascinated with the sliding doors at their training ground and driving slowly towards the entrance in his camouflage sports car, mounting the kerb to see how close he could get before the glass swung open. We all know about the scraps, the crashes, the pranks. Everyone remembers him chucking darts from a window at the youth-team players or what happened the night before the Manchester derby when he and his gang started letting off fireworks from the bathroom window (though don’t forget he scored a peach the following day).
No one, however, will recall too many games when he lived up to Mancini’s prediction that if Balotelli could stop jumbling his priorities he would be as good as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Suárez, for all his behavioural flaws, would give every drop of sweat to that Liverpool shirt.
Don’t presume the same will come from his successor. This is a guy who was out with a shoulder injury for Milan recently and posted a photograph of himself on Instagram playing table tennis. Only Balotelli could excuse himself from a game with flu – Milan’s friendly against Valencia last Sunday – then take part in a charity ice-bucket challenge the following day and not understand how it looked.
A part of him, I suspect, will always be that overgrown kid, new to England, who went to John Lewis one afternoon to get an ironing board and came back with a quad bike, a trampoline and a giant Scalextric. It is both his charm and his weakness. The good does outweigh the bad, it’s just a close-run thing sometimes and Liverpool, as Carragher implied, should bear in mind it could involve some sleepless nights.
In happier times at Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson used to give out injury bulletins at his press conferences everyone in the room knew the sensible option, without access to a polygraph, was to treat every single sentence like a carefully laid trap.
These days it comes as a slight shock that Louis van Gaal likes to speak the truth about who is fit and who is not, even if there might have been a touch of exaggeration to his claim that the list of absentees, with seven injured players for their game at Sunderland and Marcos Rojo unavailable because of work-permit issues, is like nothing he has experienced in almost 30 years of coaching.
Even with Robin van Persie fit again, and their pursuit of Ángel di María gaining momentum, their squad looks chronically inadequate for a club with United’s ambitions. Danny Welbeck, who previously gave the impression he might have Glory Glory Man United as his ringtone wants to leave and you know it is bad when Paul Scholes turns on his old club. Scholes believes they need five experienced signings, no matter what the cost, and says he is worried that if they don’t do what he says they could end up going through years of decline. “I am scared for United, genuinely scared they could go into the wilderness in the same way Liverpool did in the 1990s.”
It is pretty damning stuff bearing in mind Scholes knows all the players and is still good friends with the assistant manager but, yet again, we have one of the many former United players in the media tap-dancing around the real issue. Will anyone in that position ever link the Glazer family to what we are seeing now?
They are holding an all-night gaming festival called Insomnia in a giant marquee on the pitch at the Ricoh Arena this weekend.
Future events include a railway modelling exhibition, a darts tournament named Lock Stock and Three Smoking Arrows, the Rail Staff Awards (created in 2007 because “nobody was saying thanks or well done”) and the return of an old favourite, Psychic Sally.
These kind of events will continue to be staged because they bring in so much revenue but a football stadium can feel like an empty old place without a football club and it is a shame that Coventry City’s return, after a year of joyless trips 35 miles away to Northampton, has not attracted a little more publicity.
A lot of people should have their heads knocked together for the boneheaded series of events that took Coventry to the wrong ground in the wrong town.
Yet there were plenty more trying to put it right, in particular those dedicated souls who used to trek up the grassy hill next to Sixfields and protest at every game.
What the “hillers” did was a reminder how football fans will fight for their clubs, even when the loyalty is not returned. They deserve their break.