If Italy’s early exit from this summer’s World Cup came as a shock to the Azzurri’s players, coaching staff and fans alike, there was something staggeringly inevitable about Mario Balotelli being singled out as the focal point for a nation’s anger and frustration at the failure of their team. Why always him?
Despite his youthful age and relatively short career, there are already few players over the course of footballing history who can claim to have demonstrated such an aptitude for making headlines as the 23-year-old. Of course, a full explanation for the extent of the hysteria – in some quarters an obsession – surrounding Balotelli stretches beyond mere sporting boundaries and intertwines itself with some of the core political and sociological challenges Italian society is facing today.
“Go and look for another scapegoat,” Balotelli wrote on Instagram on Wednesday in response to an abusive message calling for him to retire from Azzurri duty. “Maybe, as you say, I am not Italian. The Africans would never blame everything on one of their ‘brothers’. Never. In this sense us blacks, as you call us, are light-years ahead.”
It is extremely hard not to feel sympathy for a young man who is single-handedly fighting what seems a losing battle for universal acceptance among his compatriots. It is harder still when, as shown by this impassioned defence of himself, you see he is clearly affected by it.
The fact remains, however, that Balotelli does absolutely nothing to help his public image in ways within his control. Erratic on-field performances and behaviour, an unfortunate tendency to fall out with teammates and Coaches and a colourful lifestyle frequently played out on social media all combine to create the sort of baggage that Inter and Manchester City have already decided they could do without.
The Rossoneri may well decide to do the same this summer, while the post-mortem of Italy’s decisive defeat to Uruguay in Brazil suggests Balotelli rowed with Azzurri boss Cesare Prandelli at half-time before being substituted, then sat alone on the team bus while the rest of the squad waited in the dressing room as Prandelli announced his resignation post-match. For good measure, he was also the subject of some less than subtle public criticism from teammates Gigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi.
“I really don’t know what his problem is,” Azzurri World Cup winner Mauro Camoranesi said of the player. “Every now and then I did something stupid, but I learned from my mistakes.” Should the stories doing the rounds about the events on Tuesday be accurate, it would merely be the latest example in a growing body of evidence that suggests Balotelli cannot and will not ever change. Young he may be, but can the likes of Jose Mourinho, the Manchester City hierarchy and most recently the Azzurri ‘Senatori’ really all be wrong about him?
On his and his teammates’ World Cup displays alone, it would not so much be harsh as a full-on agenda to hold Balotelli as responsible for the team’s collective failure to achieve the results needed for Last 16 qualification. In a team badly lacking in cutting edge and one in which he was often isolated up front, could he really have done much more than score the winner against England and provide Italy’s biggest goal threat against Costa Rica? As shown by the hateful message to which he responded on social media, there are some within the peninsula who will sadly always target him whether it is warranted or otherwise.
What Balotelli can do, however, is get his own house in order. Fair or unfair, he knows that with the circumstances as they are, he is and will remain under the media microscope more than any other player - if he doesn’t like this fact, he should at least be doing all within his power to ensure things change. At the moment, he isn’t.
By putting in committed displays on a consistent basis, channelling his undoubted talent correctly and displaying a greater sense of responsibility and discipline on and off the pitch, he would go some way towards removing the enormous burden on his shoulders. The problem is that we have been saying the same things for years. He is running out of time and chances.