There will come a point in Mario Balotelli’s life when realisation will finally dawn. Who knows what will trigger that moment: He may chance upon a clip of himself in full flow, perhaps footage of that wonder goal he fired home against Germany at Euro 2012, and he will reflect upon just how good he was in his prime. Then he will wonder why he didn’t achieve more in his career, why there are so few medals in his collection.
And then it will hit home; he will realise that he is the reason. That point may come long after he retires. If only it would come today.
It is too late to revive his Liverpool career, that much is certain. Manager Jurgen Klopp has told Balotelli (and the world) that he can leave Anfield as soon as he likes. But there won’t be many big clubs that will want to take a chance on him now. And that’s a desperate shame. Watching him traipse around the backwaters of global football, cantering from one pay cheque to another, will be like watching a gifted concert violinist smashing out a bit of Vivaldi on a subway platform.
Whatever you think of his eccentricities, Balotelli could have been a wonderful footballer. He has the generous attributes of someone who has cheekily entered himself into a video game as a private ego-boosting exercise. He is quick enough to play off the shoulder of centre-backs, big and strong enough to hold the ball up alone, clever enough to make space with just a touch or a turn, and impetuous enough to pop the back of the net with the sort of finish that most people wouldn’t even attempt in training.
But those attributes alone are not enough to sustain a career at the top of the European game. They have to be cultivated, they have to be developed, and they have to be allied to a developing tactical understanding. And that means work. Lots of it.
Balotelli has never been too keen on that bit of the job, and the stories of his childish lack of focus in the workplace are legion. But he is 25 now, the start of the horribly slippery slope of adulthood where the years flash by like weeks and you can wake up to find yourself “past it” when you weren’t really ever aware that you were “it” at all. Fewer and fewer managers will take a chance on him now.
The late, great Sir Bobby Robson had a bit of a weakness for a bad boy in his final posting as Newcastle United manager. Convinced in his powers of man-management, he fearlessly took gambles on difficult or troubled players such as Craig Bellamy, Lee Bowyer, Jonathan Woodgate and Kieron Dyer, to name just a few.
It nearly worked, as well. The Magpies were in the 2003 title race for 32 games before three straight defeats ruined it all. Fifteen months later, Robson was sacked and Dyer, who was reported to have refused to play on the right wing for Robson in that final full season, would later speak of his regret at letting Robson down. There aren’t many managers as brave as Robson now.
Evidently, Klopp has no intention of going down that road and has confirmed the striker has no future at Anfield. He believes very firmly that sweat is the catalyst to turn an average team into a good one. He will almost certainly have watched tapes of Balotelli loping half-heartedly around the pitch waiting for something to happen. Klopp will have heard the stories about Balotelli taking training games so lightly that at one point he got bored and smashed a 40-yard effort past keeper Brad Jones, which would have so much more impressive had Jones not been on Balotelli’s side.
You can’t behave like that in a Klopp team. But more worryingly, for Balotelli at least, you can’t behave like that for any team that has serious aspirations.
Football is faster and harder than ever and more tactically nuanced than ever before. Allowances can occasionally be made for talent; for example, see the relative discrepancies in defensive responsibility across manager Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid side. But when was the last time you saw Balotelli do anything that even remotely justified that sort of trust?
Anyone who loves football would love to see Balotelli fulfil his potential. You want talent to express itself, and if it can do so with such joyousness, as we have seen in some of the Italian’s earlier performances, all the better.
You want characters, too, and Balotelli’s complicated personality offers at least five of those. Most of all, you want him to ram all of that vile racist abuse back down the throats of the pond life who dish it out on social media. But the clock is ticking.
Wherever Balotelli goes next, he will need a good, strong manager. Someone who can succeed where Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Brendan Rodgers have all failed. But ultimately, there’s only so much that any coach can do. It has to come from Balotelli. He’s the only person who can ensure that he doesn’t spend his retirement wondering what might have been.
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