Saturday 24 February 2018

Troubled loners can find the going tough in foreign lands

Dion Fanning

T he conventional wisdom that Premier League footballers care about nothing except money and women received a significant blow last week. It was revealed that the enigmatic young Manchester City forward Mario Balotelli recently arrived for training in a Lamborghini loaned to him by Blackburn's El-Hadji Diouf.

In an instant, the idea of Balotelli as an impossibly difficult loner and Diouf as the nastiest man in football were dispelled. I was also reminded of the former Ireland manager who recalled meeting Diouf at the Bolton training ground and said he was "very nice".

At the time, I took this to mean that Diouf hadn't spat at him, but clearly his niceness, while on that occasion it didn't extend to lending a high-powered sports car, involved more than the absence of spit.

It may be time for us to view footballers as nothing more than WWE wrestlers, although wrestlers probably feign injury less.

If, off the field, Diouf is a Ray Wilkins type, on first-name terms with everyone from the tea lady to the Ireland manager and lending cars to friends in distress, then views will have to change. If he is, in fact, The Nicest Man In Football then it just goes to show how little we know.

The Premier League footballer is now expected to play a role and just as the public often address the actor who plays Ken Barlow as 'Ken', footballers are expected to remain in character at all times.

If they don't -- if they smile, say, after an important defeat then this glimpse of another life is frowned upon and condemned.

Football is all-consuming. The summer is not a break but just the gap between seasons and like all great TV shows, the season finale can end with a whodunnit. This is transfer speculation, modern life's equivalent of 'Who Shot JR?'

Football is the great drama of our time. After all, Roy Keane did say that the attitude he adopted when leading Manchester United out was all about projecting a certain version of himself onto the minds of his opponents and, in a sense, onto himself. Although if Keane is acting, his absorption in the role of 'Roy Keane' makes the fabled method intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis look like Terry-Thomas.

Balotelli has certainly made a play for the role of troubled loner which he is delivering with conviction.

The talk about the sacrifices a footballer has to make has become such a cliché that nobody ever considers what it might mean.

It must be difficult to sacrifice yourself. These days if any footballer mentions sacrifices, it is usually drowned out by the inane "if I was earning 50 grand a week, I'd make a few sacrifices". In fact, if most people were earning 50 grand a week, especially if they were earning 50 grand a week when they were 20 years old, I reckon they'd be pretty desperate to spend it.

It is easier to make sacrifices when you've got no other options or on somebody else's behalf. When you're a multi-millionaire with the urges of a teenager, any time you're not out enjoying yourself it probably merits some praise.

Balotelli turned 20 in August but with the arrested development we can assume of all footballers, although they are not alone in that, he can be forgiven for behaving a little younger. He is just a teenager and like all teenagers he wants to be wherever he isn't at all times.

It just happens that the place he doesn't want to be is Manchester. This is not Manchester's fault but it is not Balotelli's either. He has been given a great opportunity and it is perhaps only a teenage reluctance to seem enthusiastic about anything that prevents him from taking it.

He scored a hat-trick last week and he is playing for the team that, if they don't mess it up, should win the title this year. He acts like he doesn't care.

Yet he has overcome more challenges than most people who talk about the sacrifices other people should make will ever do. He had serious health problems as a child, was put into foster care and has since accused his biological parents of abandoning him. Making friends with El-Hadji Diouf is easy in comparison. So he returns to Milan whenever he can, acting the maggot and trying to break into women's prisons which doesn't look good.

It is forgotten that the majority of footballers who arrive in England from abroad settle without complaint. In fact, they settle in parts of England other Englishmen would not go to without complaint.

When Joe Cole signed for Liverpool, some of the comment centred on how he, as a London boy, would cope moving 200 miles north. This was treated as a legitimate line of enquiry.

Balotelli's troubles emerged in the same week that Jermaine Pennant ended his time in Spain and returned to England with Stoke City. Pennant actually returned some time ago but, by the standards of the travel-sick footballer

from these islands, he is entitled to be portrayed as a modern-day John Charles after managing over a year in Spain and only being late for training three times in one two-week period.

He completed his signing at Stoke last week and presumably has learned a lot from his Spanish adventure. Pennant is another who seems fully committed to the role he is playing.

Naturally, Pennant employed an interpreter during his time in Spain. Balotelli, on the other hand, is said to speak good English if he could only be bothered to use it.

Balotelli hasn't helped himself by claiming not to have heard of Jack Wilshere when England depends on Wilshere. Again, this is teenage posturing which is then given the textual analysis usually devoted to a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu.

But his friendship with El-Hadji Diouf demonstrates his generous nature. Diouf was accused once of having the most tasteless car in football, which must have come as a shock to Stephen Ireland.

Ireland is another in need of friends. He still lives in Manchester. Diouf and Balotelli could take him under their wing.

dfanning@independent.ie

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