Sunday 22 July 2018

Balotelli a rebel with a clause, playing a leading role in theatre of the absurd

That Was The Week cartoon
That Was The Week cartoon

Dion Fanning

Mario Balotelli returned to Milan last week accompanied by the kind of detail that has become as central to his career as goals. A year after selling him, Milan signed him on loan on condition that he conformed to an "Italian air force-style behaviour clause" and his contracts now seem to contain the same small print as hostile takeovers.

Mario is the party of the first part and it turns out the Italian air force comes down hard on the kind of things that have made Balotelli the character he is. No more will he bring his club into disrepute on Instagram. The Italian air force-style behaviour clause will also ban extravagant haircuts and clothing. He will be prevented from smoking and from visiting night clubs. He will have to turn up for training on time and his drinking will also be limited.

Mario will drink at the right time, quit extravagant haircuts, smoking and night clubs but he will still find a way because that is what he does.

The FAI was memorably described by Michael Nugent as a "perpetually exploding clown's car". The same could be said about Balotelli's career except he would probably be attracted to the idea of that clown car and would soon be spotted driving one to training.

"We are crazed to get into them and crazed to get out of them," David Mamet said about relationships and clubs seem to find themselves in a similar state of mind when it comes to Balotelli, except that some clubs seem crazed to get into them, crazed to get out of them and then crazed to get back into them again.

A year ago, Milan were said to be "desperate" to get rid of Balotelli and that they succeeded said much about Liverpool's failure to plan for a world post-Luis Suarez.

Liverpool, too, were sounding tough as they inserted clauses in his contract that would prevent him doing more or less exactly what he did during his year at the club. They didn't summon the Italian air force but Balotelli was told he would have to accept a "contract with several stringent clauses regarding his behaviour", according to a report last August.

Milan have now got him back for nothing on half the wages they were paying him a year ago, which somebody somewhere probably sees as value. There were plenty of people lining up to say he represented value at £16m last summer but those at Liverpool who found him infuriating over the past 12 months wouldn't have had their anger tempered when they remembered he hadn't cost £25m, that he was the embodiment of value.

Balotelli the footballer represents something apart from the reminder that there will always be characters in football and clubs will always wonder how they ended up with them. Beyond his Instagram output, his extravagant haircuts, his smoking and his visits to night clubs and all these facsimiles of vibrancy, he represents football's failure of the imagination which exists in tandem with their failure to understand someone like Balotelli. He is high-end football's answer to Gary Megson. Balotelli will, it seems, always be wanted by somebody, always employable for the reasons he was always employed even if those reasons don't add up any longer. He has pushed it in the past year, even if he happened to land in the middle of a politicking club where his signing could be used to prove every point.

The surprise, of course, is that he wasn't linked to Manchester United. Manchester United of 2015 would surely have been linked with the Mario Balotelli of 2014, even if their desperation may have eased somewhat because Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick on Wednesday night.

Balotelli might have picked up on this underlying theme of football. For every club doing things the right way, many more embrace chaos and anarchy, entering the transfer market with all the clear-headedness and long-term planning of Mario setting off fireworks in his bathroom. No wonder he might have found it tough to absorb the lessons football wanted him to absorb, to change his ways even after he received the paternal talks from Brendan Rodgers and the drawing of the matchstick man with the crown on his head.

In his own way, Balotelli has decided there is no need to conform in a world this absurd, especially as that world insists he is the only one behaving absurdly.

If Donald Trump is unembarrassable, a man so beyond shame that he can appear unstoppable, then, for very different reasons, Balotelli appears to be unsanctionable.

Milan's clause is, after all, just a clause in the style of the Italian air force, they won't actually be enforcing it themselves and even if they were, Balotelli would retain that look of bewilderment which suggests the world is out of step with his entirely reasonable way of living.

Of course, in the most profound way, Balotelli is right. For the best of reasons. Balotelli may see football for what it is or for what it isn't. It isn't life, it isn't the real world of misery and pain so he seems determined not to treat it as something it isn't.

His statement when he arrived in Milan was said to be an attack on Brendan Rodgers whose tactics hadn't suited him but it sounded more like an admonishment to himself.

"My problem has never been my quality but my character. There are always a lot of voices surrounding me, every aspect of me is amplified. I am a man and I no longer create problems. I am restarting from zero. I know that I can't make any mistakes, I can't expect anything and I must win everything back. I am no longer a child and I have already thrown away too many chances."

Yet he has also been expected to absorb a lot. Last year, it was estimated that Balotelli received 4,000 racist messages on social media. His life has been a story of isolation, racism and estrangement. In a parallel universe, Balotelli would have overcome these problems and become the player every club wished he could be. In the real world, he has overcome these problems while retaining an awareness that he is not the only one behaving oddly in the theatre of the absurd.

Sunday Indo Sport

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