So, Balo has returned to the San Siro from whence he came, but is he really just a victim of circumstance? Andrew Murray investigates...
There’s something lovable about Pete Doherty. The Libertines frontman has the cheeky demeanour of someone who knows he’s caught between the path of the devil and that of righteousness. This supremely gifted showman could follow the normal path to global adulation – and, you know, not break into his own band’s flat and steal stuff – but where’s the fun in that?
It’s as if he can’t help himself. He’s not being malicious. He’s not trying to spite anybody. He’s just being Pete. Mario is impossibly Mario. Why always him? Because Mario Balotelli is unique. The fireworks, the driving bans, the incessant (presumably one-way) chats with Wimbleydon, the stray cat at Manchester City’s training ground, while puffing on a cigarette. Oh, and the frequent sight of Desmond N’Ze – the 25-year-old’s former Inter Milan team-mate, who now accompanies the Italian around the world – dozing in Balotelli’s Ferrari in the Melwood training ground car park.
Mario is impossibly Mario. Why always him? Because Mario Balotelli is unique
Now Balotelli has returned to Milan on loan from Liverpool, much opprobrium has surrounded this most mercurial of forwards, the vast majority wondering aloud quite what Brendan Rodgers was thinking in signing a player so ill-suited to his high-pressing system. “Where’s the quality?” spat Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. “Where’s the evidence of the quality? I must be blind.”
Move of convenience
Tell him how brilliant he is, how crucial he is to your team and don’t burden him with tactical instruction
Like Doherty, Balotelli’s reputation goes before him. The headlines and negativity cloud people’s judgement. Nobody could claim that his spell on Merseyside has worked out, but he was the best option available with a week remaining of last summer’s transfer window.
Liverpool needed a striker and for £16m they got a 24-year-old who averaged a goal every other game, had led Milan into the Champions League the year previously, with Premier League experience and, indeed, a Premier League winners’ medal.
There was no better striker available to buy who wanted to come to Anfield. They’d tried to get Alexis Sanchez but he wanted to live in London. Marco Reus wouldn’t leave Borussia Dortmund. Rodgers also got the vanity project he craved. "When I lost Luis Suarez [to Barcelona]," the Ulsterman says in Michael Calvin’s excellent new book Living on the Volcano, "I lost a wee bit of what I've had all my life. People who were written off... I felt I needed something like that, for me."
Rodgers quickly tired of being chief caregiver, however, the nadir coming in March. In a 10-vs-10 practice match, Balotelli got the ball in the centre circle, turned and pinged the ball over a helpless Brad Jones.
The problem? It was an own goal and the Italian was bored. He dissolved into fits of laughter. His next first-team appearance was a month later in the FA Cup semi-final. At Milan he will have further behaviour clauses in his contract, but the key to the forward’s psyche has never changed. Tell him how brilliant he is, how crucial he is to your team and don’t burden him with tactical instruction – he once spent a half-time team talk at Inter playing on a PSP – and he will play for you. Just ask former Italy boss Cesare Prandelli.
Never grow up
Wherever he’s played, Balotelli’s team-mates love him, almost without exception
Wherever he’s played, Balotelli’s team-mates love him, almost without exception. He’s a laugh-a-minute dressing room presence, even if it took him until Christmas to learn his Anfield colleagues’ names. Again, there’s no malice and he’s a kindred spirit, someone mates admire for his skill and devil-may-care attitude that they don’t have the guts to replicate. When he was sent to train with the youth team this summer the writing was on the wall. A move for £8m, half what Liverpool paid, to stay in Milan next summer seems inevitable.
In late June, Pete Doherty confirmed his rejuvenation by taking to the Pyramid Stage and performing one of the Libertines’ career-defining sets to universal acclaim. At the same time, football’s very own Peter Pan was ostracised to the youth team. Mario Balotelli may show few signs of growing up just yet, but someone, somewhere, will find the infuriatingly infantile player locked within. His own Glastonbury moment.