On Monday afternoon, the Italian wonderboy “Super” Mario Balotelli made headlines for his work on the pitch, rather than his scandals off of it. (And this time it wasn’t for picking a fight with the field.) His back to the goal, with his powerful frame fending off Irish defender John O’Shea, Balotelli connected with Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo’s inch-perfect pass, driving it over O’Shea’s shoulder and past a helpless Shay Given.
Balotelli’s volley condemned the already defeated Irish to an early exit from the European Tournament and secured Italy’s place in the second round, but it was significant for another reason as well.
Going back to the start of his career at Lumezzane at the age of 15, Balotelli’s career has been the stuff of headlines — good and bad. On the one hand, Super Mario has consistently shown flashes of pure football brilliance: he makes lightning runs down the field, displays total mastery over the ball, and scores from seemingly anywhere he desires. On the other hand, Balotelli has starred in the tabloids, as well — with his “Why always me?” face illustrating the latest story chronicling his never-ending antics — including throwing darts at youth team members, burning down his house by setting off fireworks in his bathroom, and driving his car into a women’s prison. He receives a slap-on-the-wrist suspension or a light fine, and returns to the field to demonstrate brilliance — as well as frustrating stupidity.
Consider a few recent examples: In the English Premier League in April, after being red carded for a brutally dangerous tackle, Balotelli’s Manchester City manager Robert Mancini said, “I’m finished. We have six games left and he will not play.” But when the hour was dark and the title was slipping out of Manchester City’s grasp, on came Super Mario, providing an assist to help defeat Queens Park Rangers, win the match and the league. And just like that, he was redeemed.
Then, against Spain last week, Balotelli threw a fit on the field, pounding the ground with his fists and later receiving a yellow card for his accumulation of fouls. More troublingly, he was unable to pull the trigger on a breakaway, and had the ball stolen from behind. He was subbed out, and continued his temper tantrum on the bench, throwing his head back, and his arms to the side, while noticeably ignoring the game. In the next match against Croatia, Balotelli started, but was subbed after a disappointing effort. Then, on Monday, he was subbed in against Ireland and notched the beauty that the analysts are buzzing about. And just like that, Balotelli is forgiven again.
Mario Balotelli is the type of player a coach dreads. He is incredibly selfish, irresponsible, temperamental, and absurdly talented. In 165 career games played, Balotelli has scored 55 goals, but he has also received 45 yellow cards and 6 red cards, fought with teammates and ignored coaches, created countless headlines, and has firmly established himself as soccer’s anti–role model. Thanks to Balotelli, any kid who watches soccer learns the disappointing lesson that talent makes almost anything forgiveable. No matter what Balotelli does, no matter how often the police impound his Lamborghini (27 times and counting), if Super Mario keeps scoring, he will keep playing.