Last week laughter greeted Brendan Rodgers tongue-in-cheek claim that Mario Balotelli is the best player he has ever coached. The fact Mario is treated as something of a joke figure in the UK made me wonder how he would be looked upon if he was from these shores. The fact is, we’ve already seen the Balotelli story play out in a British player, in the form of Paul Gascoigne.
Stylistically Paul Gascoigne and Mario Balotelli aren’t comparable. Totally different players in totally different positions. Similarities in their career though are many, yet the things that make Gazza a national treasure seem to be the very things that cause Balo to be looked down upon and derided.
Mario is 26 years old. At that same age Paul Gascoigne was entering his second season in Rome with Lazio. An FA cup winners medal the only honour to his name. A medal he couldn’t collect as his neck high tackle on Gary Charles injured himself. Carried off on a stretcher when he could, and should, have been sent off. Gascoigne’s talent was undeniable, as was his unpredictability both on and off the pitch.
Sounds familiar right. Unpredictable could probably best sum up Balotelli’s career to this point. Unlike a 26 year-old Gascoigne however, Mario has a decent silverware collection. Champions League and Serie A winner with Inter. English Premier League and FA Cup winner with Manchester City. A list which may yet be added to as he presumably still has years to play. Yet to most English fans you couldn’t dare compare the two players.
Off the field controversy is something both have in common. That being said the way each are perceived for such behaviour is very different. Young Gazza was a cheeky, ‘daft as a brush’, ‘jack the lad’. The tales of his antics are still regularly told in a loving way by his peers. Mario on the other hand, is usually painted as the epitome of the modern-day footballer. Flash, arrogant, a wasted talent with more money than sense. “Unmanageable” says Jose Mourinho. The very things that are celebrated in Gascoigne seem to be used as a stick to beat the Italian with.
Mario may not go on to have as good a career from here on out as Gascoigne did from 26 onwards. I’m certain however, he will always be painted as an arrogant bad guy in the UK media. There may be something more sinister at the heart of some of the anti-Balotelli feeling. Perhaps race comes into it, let’s face it, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Eccentricity in British players has been celebrated over the years. Such players would be seen as entertainers, accepted for their flaws as a trade-off for their talent. Perhaps were not so accepting of this in foreign players however.
It was a move to Glasgow Rangers which rejuvenated Gazza’s career after his spell in Italy came to an end. Arguably his best period of form, both at club and international level, came when he was in Scotland. Maybe Mario needs to find his Glasgow Rangers. Nice may well be that club, given the Italian’s form this season. The French side are heading to the Champions League on the back of Balo’s 15 league goals. The Italian however may not be there to play a part in Nice’s Champions League campaign, his one year contract expires in June with no extension signed as yet.
Roberto Mancini, Mario’s former Manchester City boss, recently said that the striker has enough talent that he could’ve been on the same level as Cristiano Ronaldo by now. The fact he isn’t of course is in large part his own fault. But shouldn’t we as football fans want Mario to be the great player that Mancini thinks he could’ve been? Who doesn’t like a tale of sporting redemption? Perhaps it’s still possible that the eccentric Italian will live up to his potential. Maybe Brendan Rodgers will one day look back and realise Balotelli was the best player he ever coached. Or maybe not.
Whatever happens in the rest of Balotelli’s career though, I feel he’ll never attain the same status as Gascoigne amongst media and fans, even in his homeland. In an age where football mavericks are mostly a thing of the past I wish Mario was appreciated more for what he is. A talent who brings entertainment to football. Maybe if he was shown more love now we might hear affectionate stories of Mario when he retires, in the same way people look back on Gascoigne’s career. Maybe a little more appreciation for what he is and a little less derision for what he isn’t would help. With any luck when his career is said and done he is looked upon as fondly as half of Glasgow and all of England look back on Gazza. I certainly hope this is the case. If he was one of our own, maybe we’d all love Mario.
Do you share these thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!