This Week in Mario Balotelli: Secret Honor, Public Shame

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There are certain accomplishments in English football that tend to transcend criticism, tied as they are to ingrained notions of strong sporting stock and honorable competition. In almost every case, scoring a match-winning goal in stoppage time is one of those feats, particularly if the goal also came about by way of a penalty kick won by the same player. It's a moment defined by intestinal fortitude: one man against another in a matchup redolent of a medieval joust or duel, with nerves often the only thing getting in the way of slotting a ball past the keeper into a fairly open net.

Congratulations to Mario Balotelli, then, for managing to win a huge 3-2 match for Manchester City over Tottenham in exactly that fashion on Sunday while earning more attention for an incident that should have had him sent off only a few minutes earlier. (Representative takedowns from The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, if you enjoy reading the British equivalents of Bill Plaschke.) If you missed it, here's the gist: after coming on as a 66th-minute substitute, Balotelli quickly saw a yellow card and followed it up with an intentional-looking stamping of midfielder Scott Parker (GIF available here). Referee Howard Webb saw the move, but he only played a foul with no booking, perhaps so as to not have too large an effect on the match (which has never stopped him before, of course, and seems a silly argument given the reaction to his hands-off approach). The penalty was shrouded in controversy — in a perfectly refereed match, it never would have happened. Never mind that it was won without a dive, in a match with massive implications for the title race, after City had blown a 2-0 lead in a manner of minutes, at a time in the season when they look lacking in depth.

I've written before in this space that Balotelli explodes conventional wisdom about which personal qualities win games and which lose them, but his 30-minute stint in this match served as the best example yet of just how confusing he can be. Any reasonable account of the match must concede that Balotelli deserved to be sent off, which would have served as a crushing blow to a side already in danger of losing a cushy lead (indeed, they almost lost anyway). Yet Balotelli wasn't sent off, and he finished off the match with a sequence that would earn someone like Robin van Persie the glorious cliche "talismanic." What's disappointing about the reactions to the match isn't that journalists have criticized Balotelli—he deserves that much—but that they've been so one-sided. Why can't he be both disgraceful and heroic all at once?

It's these contradictions that make Balotelli so fascinating. He's capable of being a fantastic talent and a loose cannon within a manner of minutes, in such a way that makes both labels seem inadequate even for players who conform to them more easily. The challenge for commentators is to decide that any man, no matter his missteps, is worthy of being considered in full.

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Webb did not even blow for a foul. (If he had, from my understanding, the incident would have been considered adjudicated and not open for later review by the FA). He stopped play because of the injury to Parker's face, and it was a dead ball afterward, not a Spurs free kick.

Webb also missed Lescott's planting his forearm in Kaboul's throat from a running start, but whatever.

You have just proved--and shown your work along the way--that Mario Balotelli is Nick Van Exel.

A higher sport compliment, obviously, can hardly be paid.