None of it was true, apparently. All those stories of his eccentric largesse, the tales of chucking money from the windows of his camouflage Bentley, of paying for a bunch of homeless guys to stay at Manchester’s five-star Lowry hotel over Christmas, of handing over his winnings on the roulette table to a chap begging outside the casino (more than a grand was the story): they were all fabricated. Mario Balotelli wasn’t quite the batty philanthropist of wider imagining.
It makes you wonder, though, if he wasn’t spending his time driving round the city endlessly trying to part with some of his substantial wages, what exactly was Balotelli doing with his time in Manchester? Because he certainly wasn’t living up to his potential.
Now he is finally off to Milan, the sad truth about the hugely gifted forward is that he will be largely remembered for those embellishments of his private life. The wacky hats, the bonkers cars, the mistaken impression that he had bought indoor fireworks. Plus the eccentric generosity, which apparently was wishful thinking on the part of his admirers.
What he delivered on the pitch will be less recalled, condensed to a few sublime moments for Manchester City, like scoring a brace against United, setting up Sergio Aguero for the finish of the century and an unfailing way with a penalty. As a return for talent as substantial as his, that is not the most abundant list.
What was evident in his departure was the affection with which he was held by his manager. When Roberto Mancini said he loved Mario, you could see he meant it. The feeling was clear every time he spoke about the player. I remember once Mancini, on a visit to the Manchester velodrome, talking about whether footballers could benefit from sports psychologists in the way cyclists, for instance, did. He was asked whether Balotelli could use such assistance.
“With Mario you would need two psychologists,” he said, his tongue moving rapidly towards his cheek. “One for Mario, then after another one for the psychologist who had been working with him.”
The grin he wore was a clear expression of his feeling. He loved the player because he knew what he could do. He had worked with him at Inter and meant it when he said he could be as good as Ronaldo or Messi. And Balotelli did have the tools. Touch, pace, strength: on occasions he could be sublime. The problem was, those occasions were becoming increasingly rare. Every player – even the best – has temporary lapses in form. Balotelli’s looked more like a sabbatical.
Mancini’s shortness of temper with the player – as was demonstrated in their training ground spat – was born of frustration. He knew what Balotelli was capable of and grew ever more irritated that he was unable to extract the level of performance required from him. Remember how he played for Italy in the semi-finals of the Euros? Nobody watching that game would question Mancini’s judgment. After two thirds of a season in which his return had been one goal, you might take a very different view.
Mancini is nothing if not pragmatic. Admitting he was wrong about the player will not concern him if he now believes he is improving the team by letting him go. And this is the point: Balotelli had reached the point where he would improve things by moving on. Not because of his behaviour. But simply because of what his presence in the dressing room was doing to team unity.
The manager didn’t need a psychologist to tell him that this was a player who needed to be treated differently. Mancini didn’t indulge Balotelli because he was his favourite. He did it because he believed care and understanding were the best ways to produce results. But footballers have a simple moral code: they don’t mind if someone gets away with things if it is for the wider benefit of the team.
Lee Sharpe, the former Manchester United player, has built a whole after-dinner routine about the way in which Eric Cantona was indulged by Alex Ferguson. While Sharpe, Ryan Giggs and Steve Bruce would be verbally hammered for the slightest indiscretion, Cantona would get away with murder. But no-one at United minded, because he delivered them their win bonuses.
Likewise, nobody in the City dressing room would have objected if Balotelli’s slap-dash approach to training, his I’m-the-centre-of-the-universe world view, his lack of lung-busting effort for the cause was the corollary to match-winning turns. If he had been scoring goals, nobody would have complained if they got a verbal hammering from the boss for the smallest of offence while he remained uncriticised.
But with Balotelli, the return on such preferential treatment was becoming less and less obvious. One goal in a season does not justify such privilege. If you were Edin Dzeko, scoring for fun, how would you feel about being behind Balotelli in the pecking order when he could barely hit a barn door with a banjo?
So Mancini has acted to maintain the team spirit he will require as the season begins to heat up. It is a managerial risk. If Balotelli fulfils his enormous potential at Milan, then the manager will be regarded as having failed.
It is a shame, because the player was such fun to have in our league, but right now Mancini is doing the right thing, acting for the good of his squad. And those of us who make our living from observing the game will just have to find someone else to provide our headlines.