Paul Hayward: Mario Balotelli flirts too closely with the malign and must prevent actions crossing the line
"WHY Always Me?" asked Mario Balotelli, on his T-shirt. The answer was scrawled across Scott Parker’s head in the form of "a lovely cut", as Harry Redknapp, the Spurs manager, described it. The Football Association now needs to read that message.
Carved into Parker’s crown after a pulsating second-half was evidence of Balotelli’s darker urges. English football has welcomed this Mohican-sporting oddball as an eccentric in a repressed, image-conscious industry. Supporters love a maverick. But not when he rams his boot into the head of a fellow professional who is prone on the grass.
So now we suspend the amused media profiles recounting how Balotelli ignited his own bathroom blasting fireworks through the window, or handed out cash to strangers in Manchester city centre.
The smile has left the faces of those who watched this marvellous clash of football’s new powers and felt sure they saw Balotelli stumble, legitimately, in a clash with Parker, but then thrust his boot back into the contact area to hurt his adversary.
This is the line he walks with his outsider act. The sulks, the detachment, the nocturnal jinks all add up to an intriguing picture until malice intervenes.
He will dispute that interpretation of Sunday's events. And so he must, if the FA is serious about retrospective action for the worst offences. Anything around the head and eyes demands special scrutiny.
“What reason did he have to back-heel Scotty on the head when he’s laying on the floor?” Redknapp asked. “It’s got no place in football.”
With his stern eyes and terse responses, Parker’s manager radiated disgust. “It’s not the first time he’s done that and I’m sure it won’t be the last,” he said.
Redknapp’s anger, of course, was conveyed in scoreboard numbers: Man City 3, Spurs 2. Two-nil down inside three second-half minutes, Tottenham blasted back when Jermain Defoe capitalised on an error by Stefan Savic along route one, then Gareth Bale curled in a sublime equaliser four minutes later.
This was the tenacity and talent all Spurs fans hope to see in adversity. Yet the coup de grace was to come from a loner with a combative streak.
Balotelli had already been booked after coming on for Edin Dzeko in the 65th minute when he and Parker contested the ball eight minutes from time on the edge of the Tottenham penalty area.
After the stamp — or the attempt to regain his footing, if you prefer — Balotelli turned away like a baffled angel. In those circumstances players generally feign concern for the opponent and protest their innocence in the meekest terms.
This time Balotelli was helped by the absence of real indignation among Tottenham’s players. David Platt, Roberto Mancini’s No 2, later cited this mild reaction to suggest Spurs had not been upset by the incident.
Howard Webb, the referee, appeared unmoved. At no point did he seem likely to wave red or even a second yellow card at Balotelli. With Parker holding his head like a fallen prize-fighter, there was no eruption of tempers. But the Spurs players were not to know Balotelli would then decide this game and influence the title race so heavily.
Deep in added-time, after Jermain Defoe had missed by inches from a Gareth Bale cross, Balotelli barrelled into the Tottenham penalty box and was cut down by the legs of Ledley King, for whom desperation got the better of calculation.
The author of the damage to Parker’s head then demanded the right to take the spot kick, jogged up, stopped, then curled the ball to the right of Brad Friedel.
Most players would have slunk away with their spoils — saved the theatrical celebration for another day. Instead Balotelli stood stock still, with arms outstretched. This gesture expressed a disconnect we now understand a lot better. His look said: ‘I did nothing wrong. And now I have proved how cool I am. I have proved my point’.
He did nothing of the sort, of course. To Spurs, his very presence was an injustice Webb had failed to prevent. His winning penalty — correctly awarded — was almost a reward for violent play.
Whatever the FA’s view of it, Balotelli can expect a permanent place in the White Hart Lane rogues’ gallery, much as Stephen Hunt endures relentless hostility when he faces Chelsea fans still incensed by his knee to the head of Petr Cech.
Redknapp’s task will be to remind his players of the quality of their fightback and rescue them from gloom. Balotelli presents an easy target for blame.
Meanwhile, the Premier League extends its reputation for mixing sometimes spellbinding action with controversies that run for days. In another life we would all be talking about Bale’s goal or City’s title challenge.
As Redknapp fumed there was a palpable sense of disappointment that Balotelli should want to complicate his talent with these essentially egocentric acts. Each piece of self-indulgence weakens the hope that he might one day develop into a team player with a sense of responsibility towards his City colleagues.
The stamp on Parker confirmed his place in a private universe where the support lavished on him by Mancini is irrelevant.
A suspicion is that he feels detached from the movie going on around him, and not in a good way. For every time he delights us there is a competing trace of nihilism. If this is his idea of eccentricity, he should keep it to himself.
Striker’s history of seeing red on the field
Nov 7, 2010
Balotelli scores his first Premier League goals in a 2-0 win at West Bromwich Albion, but the achievement is marred when the snood-wearing striker grapples with Youssuf Mulumbu minutes after being booked. Balotelli pushes him to the floor and appears to lash out with a boot. Robert Mancini says: “I hope he can improve in all ways. When you are a young guy you must improve day by day.”
Mad Mario rating: 3/5
March 17, 2011
Balotelli apologises to his team-mates after he is sent off during the first half of a Europa League tie with Dynamo Kiev for a reckless challenge on Goran Popov. City win 1-0 on the night but lose 2-0 on aggregate. “I’m disappointed because this was a difficult game and you can’t have a stupid red card like this,” Mancini says. “With 11 players, we would have won and qualified for the quarter-finals.”
Mad Mario rating: 5/5
Nov 27, 2011
This time he is dismissed late on in a 1-1 draw at Liverpool for two yellow cards in a manic17-minute substitute appearance. He pulls back Glen Johnson and leads with his arm while challenging Martin Skrtel.
Mad Mario rating: 4/5