Love will tear us apart again

Say this much for Roberto Mancini: he’s definitely not one to turn a drama into a crisis.

Indeed, his efforts yesterday to pour cold water on the tabloid fire ignited by Thursday’s training ground clash with Mario Balotelli virtually recast the pair as John and Mary in Fr Ted — the perpetually warring husband and wife who, whenever Ted happened to show up, would suddenly transform themselves into the most loved-up couple on earth.

Alternatively, you might like to think of Mancini’s studied understatement as being akin to that recurring gag in spoof disaster movies: the one where the phlegmatic old beat cop calmly advises rubber-neckers to “move along now, there’s nothing more to see here”, even as earthquakes, aliens and dinosaurs continue to tear up the cityscape behind his back.

“No wasn’t bad ... nothing special...the pictures are worse,” Mancini was at pains to insist, not least, you suspect, because it was the manager rather than the player who appeared to come out worse in the snaps.

The City boss did, however, concede the main points of the story: that Balotelli had recklessly tackled a fellow player and then refused to leave the training pitch when ordered to do so by the manager.

Yet, not only did Mancini maintain that this was nothing out of the ordinary, he even declared he would be prepared to give Balotelli “one hundred more chances” if he thought the player had the capacity to change. Not for the first time at Man City, one can’t help detecting the moving hand of Sheikh Mansour behind the scenes.

Still, if it’s any consolation to poor Roberto, he’s hardly the first gaffer to have his reserves of peace, love and understanding stretched to the limit by Mario Balotelli.

Jose Mourinho has told the story of Inter having to play Ruben Kazan in the Champions League in the teeth of an injury crisis which had robbed him of most of his strikers. “Mario got a yellow card in the 42nd minute,” he related, “so when I went into the dressing room at half-time, I spent about 14 minutes of the 15 available speaking only to Mario. I said to him, ‘Mario, I cannot change you, I have no strikers on the bench, so don’t touch anybody and play only with the ball. If you lose the ball, no reaction. If someone provokes you, no reaction. If the referee makes a mistake, no reaction’. The second half? Red card.”

As it happened, Inter held on to draw 1-1 in that away game. And in the second leg, it was none other than Super Mario who sealed a 2-0 win with a stunning free-kick to help move the Italian side a step closer to its eventual triumph in the Champions League final that season against Bayern Munich.

Italian nation boss Cesare Prandelli is another gaffer who has wrestled — though not quite as literally as Mancini — with the conundrum that is Mario but who, similarly, had his dubious faith repaid with the player scoring twice against Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 2012 (not to mention also grabbing a spectacular goal against Ireland in the last group game, a trifling matter which need not detain us here).

In short, the reason informed football people are prepared to indulge him is because, as a recent Gazzetta Dello Sport piece put it: “(His) quality is not up for discussion. We’re all (or nearly all) agreed that, potentially, he is a phenomenon, a player who if he wanted to, if he led the life of an athlete, would be at the level of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.” Despite the popular caricature, the football world is not entirely lacking in qualities like sensitivity and basic human decency either, which might also explain why, even for some of the game’s hard-bitten pros, Balotelli’s back story can still elicit sympathy: the toddler who was abandoned by his natural parents as a two year old, who was then denied the right to claim his foster parents’ name until he was 18 and who was also exposed to terrible racial abuse as a young player. Speaking of his background a few years ago, Balotelli remarked: “Some people say that being abandoned like that is a wound that will never heal. All I can say is that an abandoned child never forgets.”

Still, Mario Balotelli is a man now and, at 22 it’s hardly enough that he asks: “Why always me?” That famous t-short slogan might have revealed a mischievous sense of humour at odds with the sullen demeanour and capacity for self-destruction he too often exhibits on the field of play, but self-awareness is not the same thing as self-examination, let alone self-improvement.

Illness, poor form and recurring attitude problems have drastically restricted his contribution to Manchester City’s cause this season, a sign perhaps that the law of diminishing returns is beginning to apply here with some force.

Nevertheless, when Roberto Mancini says he’s willing to give Mario Balotelli another one hundred chances, that could yet turn out to be about 95 more than City’s owners are willing to give the manager.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

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