Mario Balotelli is fun. Maybe not fun for the people immediately around him (although maybe he is) but fun for those who witness him from a distance.
He lets off fireworks in his bathroom. He visits colleges to use their bathrooms. He drives into women’s prisons for a look around. He struggles to put a bib on. And he does it all with the unblinking visage of a man who is either massively up himself or is on a deadpan mission to satirize the whole of society.
With Balotelli you suspect it’s the latter, which is why when news of his imminent transfer to Liverpool broke on Thursday (and was finally completed on Monday prior to Liverpool's encounter with Balotelli's former club, Manchester City), Twitter and Facebook hummed with people who usually take only a passing interest in football talking about how exciting it was to have him back. He is also an extremely good footballer. He is powerful and, when he feels like running, lightning quick.
Since he turned 20, he has scored a goal every 140 minutes he had been on the field (as journalist Gabriele Marcotti pointed out, that’s pretty much the same as former Liverpool star Luis Suarez’s record in the same period: the Uruguayan has scored a goal every 139 minutes, albeit without anywhere near as many penalties as Balotelli). In the semifinals of Euro 2012, it was his forward play that almost single-handedly downed Germany.
You think of his casual rolled finish from 20 yards for Manchester City against Manchester United or his 40-yard screamer for AC Milan against Bologna. He does things other players don’t. But he is also unreliable. He has spent most of the last six months in a sulk. Against Costa Rica in Recife, he gave what was perhaps, on a talent-to-effectiveness ratio, the most frustrating individual performance of any player at the World Cup, wandering offside again and again.
In 2012, playing for City away to Arsenal, he was a liability, flying into challenges and barely even making a run. Jose Mourinho tells the story of Inter Milan's Champions League tie away to Rubin Kazan in September 2009. Because of injury and suspension, Balotelli was Inter’s only forward. In the first half he got booked so, having no replacement, Mourinho spent most of halftime telling Balotelli he had to make sure he stayed on the pitch: don’t get involved, don’t make a tackle, don’t say anything to the referee.
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Quarter of an hour later, Balotelli threw himself into a tackle on Christian Noboa and collected a second yellow card. You can’t rely on Balotelli. There are those who would reply that you couldn’t rely on Suarez either, but it was a different kind of unreliability. For all his other faults, nobody has ever suggested Suarez has been anything other than the most diligent of trainers. His biting, his diving and his attempts to wind up opponents are born of a will to win – which doesn’t mean they are any less serious, but does mean fans are more prepared to overlook them.
Balotelli can be feckless. He can be disruptive. If you’re his manager, every time your phone goes there must be a pang: “What’s Mario done now?” But he is daft and irresponsible rather than malicious. So for Brendan Rodgers, this is a risk, particularly given that Balotelli has already made clear that he doesn’t think much of the northwest of England – the fact he’s prepared to go back suggests just how unhappy he had become at Milan.
But for £16 million, as has been the reported transfer fee, it’s probably a risk worth taking. Numerous managers – from Mourinho to Roberto Mancini to Massimiliano Allegri - have thought they could control Balotelli, that for some reason it would be different this time round, but none have succeeded. Rodgers, in fairness, has a habit of getting the best out of players: Daniel Sturridge had a reputation for flakiness before he got to Anfield but has been exceptional since. Even Suarez seemed to be on the way to rehabilitation last season before he snapped with his national side.
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But Balotelli is some challenge: he is still only 24, but it may be that he is untamable – and it may even be that the unpredictability that can make him look like a genius stems from that. The pattern, though, suggests that Balotelli tends to start well, that new challenges keep him focused and it’s when he’s been in the same place for a couple of years that his attention begins to wander. If Liverpool can get a good two years out of him, then £16 million is a bargain.
Despite the signing of Rickie Lambert, Liverpool probably did need another forward to supplement Sturridge. Balotelli is not Suarez, but he does offer a similar range of tactical options. He can play through the center, alongside Sturridge, if Rodgers opts for a midfield diamond – although whether he has the selflessness to form he sort of partnership Suarez and Sturridge did is debatable. Or he can play wide, cutting in on the diagonal, if Rodgers goes for an attacking 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. And if, away from home in Europe, perhaps, Rodgers wants to play a lone striker, his physique probably makes him better equipped for the role than Sturridge.
So it’s a gamble, but it’s one that makes sense. And, even if it goes wrong, it ought to be entertaining.