City star must heed lessons from Cantona to be true great
Mario Balotelli would have been 18 months old when Eric Cantona tread the turf of English football for the first time on a windswept February afternoon at Oldham's Boundary Park in 1992.
Whether the Manchester City forward has grown up much during the subsequent two decades is a moot point in the wake of his latest brush with authority, having appeared to kick Tottenham midfielder Scott Parker in the head during a 3-2 victory at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
But the similarities between Balotelli and Cantona are becoming greater by the week, with City's Italian maverick proving the Frenchman's equal in terms of decisive contributions, both to the scorelines and the headlines.
Back in 1992, Cantona had pitched up at Leeds United after walking out on French club Nimes in disgust at being handed a one-month suspension for throwing a ball at a referee.
The ban was subsequently doubled after Cantona walked up to the disciplinary panel and called each member an 'idiot' before announcing his retirement from football.
Two decades separate the volcanic enigma of Cantona from the madness of Balotelli, but there can no denying that the Premier League now has another 'enfant terrible' on its hands.
Balotelli, the dart-throwing, firework-releasing man-child, has become the modern-day incarnation of Cantona, the motorbike-riding Frenchman with a passion for art, acting and Gitanes.
Neither cares much for authority or convention. Balotelli, as wild as he can be, is a man of the people who will think nothing of offering a £50 tip to the guy who has just cleaned his car or a grateful 'Big Issue' vendor on Deansgate.
Cantona, meanwhile, rejected the Millionaires' Row lifestyle of his United team-mates and chose to live in a modest semi-detached among painters, builders and taxi drivers in the Salford suburb of Boothstown.
Yet while their shared brilliance on a football pitch has ensured adulation and iconic status on either side of the Mancunian divide, both men are betrayed by a dark side.
Balotelli has received three red cards during his 18 months at City. One, against Dynamo Kiev last season, was for a kung-fu style challenge on an opponent, while his brush with Parker evoked memories of Cantona's dismissal against Swindon Town in March 1994 for stamping on John Moncur.
Three days later, Cantona was dismissed again during a tempestuous 2-2 draw with Arsenal at Highbury, with Alex Ferguson bemoaning the piercing focus on the player, whose temperament had been labelled as the Achilles heel of United's title challenge.
Balotelli is facing similar accusations. Gary Neville, Cantona's former Old Trafford team-mate, claimed "that lad will either win City the title or lose it for them," following the Parker incident.
To suggest that Balotelli is as central to City's ambitions as Cantona was to United's in the mid-1990s would be overstating his current importance to Roberto Mancini's team, but he is an emerging talent who undeniably won the points against Tottenham -- albeit after coming close to losing them had he been shown a red card for the incident with Parker.
Mancini indulges Balotelli in the same way that Ferguson indulged Cantona, however. Both managers turn a blind eye to indiscretions in the hope that their faith would be rewarded on the pitch.
Ferguson allowed Cantona to shun a tie while wearing the club suit, usually with trainers instead of shoes, while Mancini merely rolls his eyes and shrugs when told of the latest episode of the Balotelli soap opera.
At United, Ferguson's handling of Cantona paid off spectacularly, with the forward delivering four Premier League titles to Old Trafford in five seasons. Yet the one that got away came in 1995 -- when an eight-month ban for jumping into the crowd at Selhurst Park robbed United of their talisman and enabled Blackburn to win the league.
When Cantona threatened to quit, halfway through his suspension, Ferguson flew to Paris, where he was carried pillion on a motorbike through the French capital, in a desperate attempt to talk his troubled genius into reconsidering his plans, which he did.
Mancini is prepared to go to similar lengths for Balotelli, having nurtured him as a teenage prodigy at Inter Milan. The City manager has compared the 21-year-old to Cristiano Ronaldo, claimed he can be one of the "top five players in the world". But Balotelli ought to heed the warning and learn from Cantona's mistakes.
When Cantona spoke of the "seagulls following the trawler," he was making a barbed reference to the suffocating scrutiny he was under from referees, media and supporters alike. Balotelli is having to deal with the same problem, his 'Why Always Me?' T-shirt confirming his awareness of that.
Cantona, ultimately, proved his ability to rise above the distractions and establish himself as one of the greats of the Premier League era.
Balotelli has the talent to do the same, but the question now is whether he has the sense. (© Daily Telegraph, London)