Ciao Mario

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As Mario Balotelli departs English football, I bade him a fond arrivederci…

And so with barely a whimper he was gone. Mario Balotelli has departed these shores, seemingly, for the final time. He returns to the fashion capital Milan, this time to parade around in the red and black, not the black and blue, where his flamboyant hats will be accepted.

The moralisers in the English media have come out in full, depressing force. The official consensus being – why get so hung up about someone whose playboy lifestyle was disproportionate with his footballing ability? But they miss the point. Mario Balotelli has helped English football rediscover its joie de vivre.

The headline writers have labelled the mercurial Mario as either a ‘flop’ or ‘failure’ in English football, which probably speaks more about them than him, but the narrative has never truly revolved around the Italian’s footballing ability. In an age of footballdom characterized by monosyllabic drones, Balotelli upset the norm.

What then of his footballing ability that, in the past, has left the man proclaiming he sees himself as second only to Lionel Messi? We have caught merely fleeting glimpses of it.

Brought to these shores by Roberto Mancini in August 2010, the enigmatic Italian amassed 30 goals in 80 appearances, 17 of which came during his peak middle season – 2011-12. His footballing exploits have been more a story of potential, occasional brilliance and a preposterous nonchalance from the penalty spot that would shame Dimitar Berbatov.

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A propensity for controversy, which saw him awarded 4 red cards and a 4-match ban for a stamp on ‘English hero’ Scott Parker over the past two and a half years, has been more consistently publicised than his football.

He provided just a solitary assist in his time at the Etihad; but when it gifts your club their first league title in 44 years, whose to complain about self-indulgence?

That his excellence in a City shirt was isolated can not be denied – and it is likely that a lack of consistency that has seen him fail to dislodge an already misfiring attacking line has cost him. He arrived as a fourth-choice striker and that is how he will leave, but his impact on the hearts and minds of people in this country is unquestionable.

Mario has been an extraordinary character on the landscape of English football over the last two and a half years; he has attracted fascination and obsession in equal measure. His unquenchable love for fireworks, camouflaged Bentleys and home-made t-shirts appealed, as Robin van Persie would testify, to that ‘little kid’ inside all of us.

Most engrossing of all was the ‘Mario myth’ that perpetuated; no tale of his antics required a semblance of truth, if it was plausibly ‘Balotellified’ then people would lap it up. Did he give £1000 to a homeless person after a bumper night at a casino? Did he dress up as Father Christmas and drive round Manchester handing out presents? Who cares – sounds like our Mario!

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He was guilty of petulance but no more than Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez, and it is no reason to paint him as the anti-christ Lance Armstrong figure of football who brought the sport into disrepute.

Many were keen to see the back of him before he arrived, citing Jose Mourinho’s cries that he was ‘unmanageable’, and the proverbial ‘training ground bust-up’ with Mancini in early January proved the tipping point. To date it remains the most significant involvement of Scott Sinclair’s City career.

Mancini has admitted that he will miss Mario on a personal level, and therein lies the problem. Perennially acting as the disciplinarian father figure to young misguided Mario, yet ever willing to wrap a consoling arm around his misunderstood maverick. He can not help it, but Mancini’s career at City has become characterized by the complicated relationship with that of his countryman.

Given the bumbling efforts of his fellow City forwards this season, and his own stupendous summer of fun in Poland and Ukraine, that he’s failed to muster more than 3 goals is alarming and shambolic. EURO 2012 appeared to be the watershed moment of his career; you could be forgiven for expecting him to lead the charge in the defence of City’s league crown. But it has not come close to happening.

Mario Balotelli of Manchester City winks at Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United after a full time melee

Whatever you think of Mario Balotelli, it can not be denied that he brought colour to a previously grey and dreary canvas. In future years we will look back and treasure that fact. He did so much that it is almost impossible to keep track – who else forgot the wink at Rio Ferdinand after the FA Cup semi-final in 2011? He is a footballer that we will forever remember – but maybe more for the moments when he was not a football pitch.

Ciao Mario, and thanks for the eccentricity. I hope Italian bibs are easier to understand than English ones.

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