Yes, yes. I know. Just what the world needs: another cod-psychological think piece on Mario Balotelli. The adoptive parents, the troubled childhood, the occluded racial identity: he grew up without a father figure, you see? No wonder he keeps getting caught offside.
Perhaps, then, we should swivel the long-lens camera and examine ourselves.
Why is Balotelli always one of the players “under the microscope”? Why did BT Sport’s Ray Stubbs expend three of his seven questions to Brendan Rodgers on Saturday on a player who had fewer touches than anyone else on the pitch? Most pertinently, why are we seemingly unable to stop talking about him? There he is, Balotelli, filling the Balotelli gaps in Balotelli everyone’s Balotelli sentences, like a Balotelli tube of Balotelli Polyfilla.
We should start with the Newcastle United game, because it illustrated the point ideally. As both sides struggled to break through, commentators Ian Darke and Robbie Savage decided to conduct a sort of rolling blog on Balotelli’s inadequacies.
He was criticised for not tackling back, and then for making a “needless foul”. He was criticised for not showing enough desire to get the ball, being in the wrong position when he did and – most heinously of all – being the last player to take the field for the second half. “That says to me he’s not ready,” Savage diagnosed, with a perspicacity that portended a glittering career in medical science.
If Balotelli’s inability to create instant goals from long balls at head height was not irksome enough, there was his expression. “The body language!” Savage shouted. “Come on, Mario! What’s that saying to the rest of the team?” This is the puzzling aspect of Balotelli’s press: the number of people who seem not just disappointed by his lack of goals, but genuinely offended.
All footballers endure patches of bad form. But only with Balotelli is this ascribed to some fundamental moral failing, rather than – say – a lack of confidence, a lack of service or the transition to a new club with a completely new playing style.
It is not just Savage, either. Sky’s Graeme Souness looked like he wanted to punch Balotelli during his analysis of the Real Madrid game last week. A few weeks ago, an Irish newspaper suggested that Balotelli was somehow an affront to the spirit of Bill Shankly. Over time it is hard to shake the impression that Balotelli has become the lowest of low-hanging fruit, that our collective obsession says more about us than it does about him.
Last week, a member of parliament tweeted that Balotelli was in the public gallery at Westminster, watching a debate on drug policy. Naturally, the internet got very excited about this, until someone pointed out that Balotelli was actually still training at Melwood. Not that this deterred every single news outlet in the Western world from reporting it. The implication, you see, was that Balotelli may not actually have been there in a strictly corporeal sense, but – nudge, wink – it could have been, eh? Eh?
And this is where wish fulfilment comes in. The moment a man does not actually have to do anything to be talked about, we have essentially appropriated him for our own ends: tendentious headlines, cheap clicks, pseudointellectual Monday columns. The man himself is no longer of any importance. What matters is the canvas he provides.
Essentially, Balotelli is like one of those modern art installations that magically appear overnight in big cities. “It’s about materialism in the 21st-century West,” say critics. “It’s about the essential fragility of human life,” say cultural commentators. A few hours later, the council comes along and it turns out it was actually the work of a late‑night fly-tipper.
None of which is to suggest that Balotelli is without intrigue. But the fixation on him is, amongst other things, just a little bit weird. Where are the frame-by-frame analyses of Philippe Coutinho’s body language? Why does nobody ever “spot” Jordan Henderson in the House of Commons? What about Joe Allen’s daddy issues?
Most importantly, what we will all talk about when Balotelli is gone?
Perhaps that will be the moment we realise that we needed Mario far more than he ever needed us.