Rodgers eager to tame bad boy Balotelli, but will the Italian be Liverpool's Cantona?
Google the phrase “said she can’t resist bad boys” and you come up with 29.1 million results. From broadsheet dating columnists to Taylor Swift, Cheryl Cole, Rihanna and everything between, it seems that not only are women irresistibly drawn to the smouldering complexities of the bad boy persona, but there is also a pretty extensive list of females ready and willing to admit it.
Among the many reasons posited by columnists and psychological bods to explain the theory that women can’t say no to a wild child, central to it is the idea that the gal feels she can change the guy. It plays to the ego, you see, making the bad boy devilishly appealing. This notion that she can be the one to turn his life around where others have failed is known in psychology as the ‘Messiah Complex’.
“When a woman falls for a 'bad boy’, she tells herself that she will be the one who can change him, so there’s an element of ego involved,” psychologist Jane McCartney told the Telegraph last year. Judith Woods, the journalist who wrote the piece, goes on to affirm: “It is true that we women love nothing better than rescuing damaged men.”
'Someone we can improve'
If Mario Balotelli is the ultimate bad boy, as is oft-portrayed, then having signed the Italian striker for £16 million - taking a chance described by some as a gamble and by others as absolutely insane – Brendan Rodgers is the ‘nice girl’ as Woods puts it, irresistibly drawn to big bad Balo because the Liverpool manager believes he can change him.
When the deal was announced, Rodgers’ comments were revealing. He praised Balotelli’s ability and intelligence but also stated the 24-year-old is “someone we can improve both as a football player and as a person.” This suggests that on a subsconscious level, the Liverpool boss sees Balotelli as much as a pastoral mission as a coaching one.
One of the summer’s most intriguing transfers therefore comes with a no less interesting side story. In a sense it’s the ultimate vanity purchase by Rodgers, an attempt by the Northern Irishman to enhance his own narrative – and perhaps ego – by proving himself as the one who succeeded where many others, including his mentor Jose Mourinho, failed. Rodgers wants to be the one who finally manages to tame football’s bad boy; the lifejacket to Balotelli’s sinking ship.
Rodgers’ first words on Balotelli were tongue-in-cheek. “Trouble!” he exclaimed on Sky’s Monday Night Football, grinning from ear to ear like the girl who’s finally got her man and must now figure out how to keep him. But a theme Rodgers consistently returned to in that interview was one centred around himself – talking up his track record with so-called troubled players, going back to his days in youth coaching.
“I’ve been a guy who gives players an opportunity all my life,” Rodgers told Sky. “I think most players I always like to sit down and look in their eye to see the honesty and the humility they have. I think when I sat with him, you know I spent about three-and-a-half hours just talking through Liverpool. I’ve read one or two bits that this is a make-or-break decision for me: I’ve done this all my life. I’ve taken players that people have written off and they’ve performed well.”
Though the deal makes obvious sense from a financial perspective – Balotelli has averaged almost a goal every other game since joining Manchester City in 2010 – Rodgers is taking a wager not just on the player but on his own ability to unlock Balotelli’s immense potential where others struggled.
While Mourinho eventually gave up on the man with the camo-print Bentley and indoor fireworks kit, describing him as ‘uncoachable’, and Max Allegri questioned his ability to work as a team player, Rodgers believes he’s the man who can get the best from him.
He’s begun by playing the ‘last chance at a big club’ card, exactly the same tactics he employed with Daniel Sturridge. Sturridge too arrived at Anfield with something of a bad-boy reputation (unfairly, we might add) and has been managed superbly by Rodgers, to the point where his goalscoring record after 50 games is the second best in Liverpool’s history.
All in the head
The psychological side of coaching is clearly an aspect that fascinates Rodgers. He works closely with sports psychiastrist Dr Steve Peters, an important part of Great Britain’s successful Olympic cycling team, to cultivate mental toughness in his players and will use every psychological trick in the book to try to tame Balotelli.
History dictates, however, that bad boys are not easily tamed. “The chances of a woman succeeding in changing a man so fundamentally are very, very slim,” wrote McCarthy, and at 24 Balotelli has already racked up big-money transfers with the speed Casanova accumulated lovers. Roberto Mancini promised to give Balotelli “100 chances if possible, if I think he can change,” after a training ground bust-up at Manchester City in early 2013 saw player and manager almost come to blows. Mancini relied on the tough love approach to try to change his bad boy but eventually conceded defeat. Weeks later he was sold.
Mancini treated Balotelli like a son. Not many transfers are signed off with words as warm as “We love Mario”, Mancini’s comments after an offer from AC Milan was accepted. But too often Mancini made Balotelli the scapegoat at City, giving him especially hard treatment when players like Carlos ‘Golf Holiday’ Tevez were handled far more leniently, at least in public. Balotelli was given too much stick, not enough carrot – an approach you can’t imagine Rodgers repeating. More likely it’ll be the other way round.
There’s a suggestion that Liverpool signing Balotelli could be Rodgers’ ‘Cantona moment’ – the final piece in the jigsaw at Anfield through a player whose infectious swagger inspires all around him. Perhaps he too can propel his team to a first league title in over two decades?
There are similarities between Balotelli and Eric Cantona. That cocksure attitude, the effortless cool, the hot temper and uncompromising bull-headedness to do things their own way. Like Balotelli, Cantona was written off and misunderstood, wandering from club to club before finding his true home. Equally, you can just imagine Balotelli scoring a last-minute winner or dispatching a decisive penalty in front of the away end at Old Trafford or Goodison Park and celebrating it à la Cantona against Leeds many moons ago.
But to reduce Cantona to a mercurial yet moody hothead would be misguided. Where Cantona and Balotelli clearly differed was in their professionalism and approach to the game.
Cantona’s arrival at Old Trafford heralded a completely new ethos at Manchester United. His dedication to training and willingness to put in extra work to perfect his technique long after the sessions had finished brought about a new professionalism that rubbed off on a golden generation of United youngsters, players who idolised Cantona and ‘followed him like the Pied Piper’ as United boss Sir Alex Ferguson described it.
Balotelli’s arrival at Anfield may bless the club with bucketloads of self-belief and a renewed swagger, but can anybody really imagine the arrival of Liverpool’s No.45 ushering in a new era of dedication to training? If anything he could be a distraction.
Rodgers will be aware of all this. “With Mario the market was very limited in terms of what we could bring in,” he admitted. “The business was very good for us to take him in and we’ll see if it works. If not then at least we’ve tried. There’s no doubt there’s a risk with it but it’s a calculated risk.”
There’s been much talk of Balotelli’s overwhelming – potentially unbalancing – personality, the cult of Mario and the supposed troubles it brings. But in signing him, Rodgers is showing us he too has deep levels of self-belief. The Liverpool manager is essentially gambling his club's fortunes on the premise that his own persona is strong enough to take on – and tame – Balotelli’s.
If the gamble succeeds it will be a masterstroke, and Rodgers will have proved he can succeed where others failed – a shot to the ego like no other. If it fails he’ll be just another victim to have fallen for a bad boy’s charms and been left wanting.