It’s probably unwise to view Mario as some sort of symbol. After all, this may only lead to what John Lacey so brilliantly termed a ‘new breed of cliche’. One with a Mohican. But so ripe is the rather magnificent (actually) Italian that if I fall headlong into anything on the saccharoidal or sloppy side of all-consuming here I can live with that. He’s great symbol material. He deals in (or seems to deal in) either comic or provocative gestures; ‘Why always me?’; a firework up the arse (or somewhere); as Robin Hood for Moss Side; via that hair-cut. He’s – on one level, surely? – bloody good value.
It seems the latest peak – or pique, or peek – in the Mario fable concerns his jolting to a halt at the precipice of outright rebellion earlier this week. When his people called off the Premiership quality, division-amplifying case lodged in some degree of fury against his employers, Manchester City. (For those in the dark about this stuff, basically they had fined him for being prodigiously haughty, naughty and individualist… and Mario objected – spicily and via his lawyers.)
So now, we’re into a kind of rumbling peace. A peace where we can only imagine swear words of the most vile Italian nature are being slid like poison letters under hotel bedroom doors. From the Mancini Family to the Balotelli. Meaning that although the lines of mutual contempt are openly drawn, positions are being re-negotiated, in a suitably febrile atmosphere, where the chamber maid gets frisked and the bellboy practically water-boarded. Because they’re both – they’re all! – working for somebody, right? Arbitration of the most hopelessly hopeless kind has been going on. And, for now, it’s worked.
After an opening ten minutes which augured well for the silvered bulk of City’s galacticos, Mario played like a total pussy against United. He may not have been alone in that, but this is the key and the catalyst. Worse – he looked like he wasn’t trying. His sulk condemned him – the feeling being that anyone so insensitive as to openly prioritise his own frustrations, for whatever reasons, over the need to beat The Enemy must surely be the worst and most arrogant kind of traitor. This was how his performance – or his withdrawal of labour? – was widely judged. Mancini, to no-one’s surprise, hoiked him early in the second half and Balotelli stomped defiantly but rather pathetically off down the tunnel. You would be hard pushed to find anyone sympathetic.
There are, of course, issues around this Mariocentric Polarisation Thingy. The Love/Hate boogaboog of his Go Home/Out There/Over My Dead Bodyness. Him drawing that attention or deserving it or not. Him bristling against our prejudices as well as our love of the one-off, the natural. Balotelli pushes all kinds of buttons, and like a miscreant child in a lift, he can’t stop. The result is some dizzying but not typically pleasant lurch from bargain basement through Lingerie to a glorious, metro-cosmopolitan summit, whilst his fellow passengers either indulge him or twitch pre-violently. But who, exactly, in this clumpingly predictable and reductive journey is making it ‘all about him?’ Not just us.
Mourinho famously described Mario as ungovernable and I have no doubt part of the texture of his current relationship (with Mancini) is because of the latter’s need to be seen to deal with him. Roberto is a proud and evidently stubborn man too. Crucially perhaps, he still lacks the seal of approval of the wider Brit Footie Public, who view him as a fortunate inheritor rather than a kosher elite-level manager. Thus whilst on the one hand it may be that Roberto wants shot of Mario immediately if not sooner, some genuine attempt to Be The One Who Tamed That Beast may be part of the equation here. That and some real or heavily prompted desire to facilitate the expression of the Balotelli talent. Which is real.
There is resentment in the air. From City fans as well as those who bawl from the sidelines of the affair. Many do not react well to anyone who struts – whether that be a non-hostile, almost non-contact Berbatovian version or the slightly spikier in-a-coiffured-kindofaway favoured by Ronaldo. It smacks quite simply of arrogance. Balotelli, even when so deliciously-brilliantly demonstrating the art of penalty-taking under extreme pressure, fails to avoid the negativity around this particular charge. His nerveless dinks or doinks or passes into the net and subsequent joyless posing tending to evoke roars of animosity outweighing even the Sky Blue cheer. (Speaking personally mind you, they’ve made me laugh.) More seriously, the generality of footiefolks read his loafing about when things ‘just aren’t happening’ as unforgivable. As stuff he can’t get away with in the Prem, anyway. And sadly, a racial angle on all this anti-Mario hoo-haa cannot be ruled out.
Plus money lurks. Because of the news story, we all know now that two weeks wages for this particular City employee constitutes around £340,000. Three hundred and forty thousand pounds! Which he will now pay in fines to City, following his poor disciplinary record. (Incidentally, a swift reckoning up suggests it would take me 28.3 years, on current earnings, to accumulate this amount. Go on, have some fun! Work out your figures!! And then go barf.) Frankly rather weird that Mario’s initial directive to fight the case was surely barely connected to the amount of money – more the amount of slight against his name, his nature, his talent. These things, understandably, he holds precious. But the manner in which he displays this… pride(?) this self-worth(?) undermines him, does it not?
Perceptions around this Balotelli fellah are so loaded up with tribal cares and personal envies and moralistic tosh that no wonder things blur into symbol. Mario as lone warrior; Mario as renegade, inevitably misunderstood genius. Is this, I wonder, how he sees himself? Standing there alone, in front of that full-length mirror? In his figure hugging designer undies, his arms spread wide, aloft, his face quizzical?
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