I've written before that Mario Balotelli's reputation has a tendency to make people play up his failures and disgraces while giving short shrift to his acts of greatness. Moves and goals that would bring other players plaudits become footnotes to Balotelli's antics. Yet that uneven distribution of attention isn't really unfair, because Balotelli does often do stupid and dishonorable things on the pitch. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Balotelli experience is that the good and bad can exist simultaneously. In the either-or calculus, both options are very real.
On Saturday, Manchester City drew 3-3 with Sunderland, the first time they've dropped points at home this season. It was a failure for City as they try to keep pace with rivals Manchester United in the title race, and most of the team deserves criticism for their performance. However, Balotelli was a standout, scoring two goals. The second, a video-game dribble and strike, was particularly big, coming in the 85th minute at a 3-1 deficit. Watch it, because it's one of the goals of the season without context. Then consider that, if he hadn't scored right then, people might be talking about Man City's 3-1 disaster as if Sheikh Mansour were going to field a whole new squad next fall. (Which is still possible, of course.)
Naturally, manager Roberto Mancini wanted to talk about how terrible Balotelli was after the game. From the AFP:
But Balotelli attracted far much than just his goals as he argued with officials, opponents and even had a furious confrontation with team-mate Kolarov as they disputed who should take a free-kick.
With City – now with just one win from their last four league matches – already showing signs of cracking under the pressure of fighting United for the title, the last thing Mancini needs is more distractions from Balotelli.
“I only had Carlos Tevez on the bench but I thought about subbing Mario after five minutes,” Mancini said. “He didn’t play well. In a game like this, your strikers need to do something different, not just play for the last two or three minutes – but in the end he scored two goals.
“He and Edin Dezko should be scoring two or three goals in a game like this.
"They know that at the free-kick it should be Aleksandar and Mario on the ball, after that they decide who shoots. This can happen at times like this but this is the last time.”
Coaches in all sports are known for demanding lots of their players, and Mancini's reaction is still ridiculous. Yes, City should have won a home match against a ninth-place club, but blaming Balotelli for not scoring a hat trick is akin to complaining about Russell Westbrook turning the ball over three times in an otherwise efficient 30-point performance. At a certain point, the blame has to go elsewhere. It would be far easier to cast aspersion on Mancini's team selection, several defensive failures on Sunderland counterattacks, or solely a strike partner who had zero goals. On a day when he was the team's star, Balotelli became the whipping boy.
That's not to say that he was blameless—as Mancini observed in the 64th minute, Balotelli argued with Aleksandar Kolarov over taking a free kick beyond what's reasonable. Turning that incident into a scandal forgets the anarchy of free kick choices in general, though—they're decided so haphazardly that more players might as well play Rock-Paper-Scissors to figure it out. Balotelli acted like a dingus but had no indirect negative effect on the match; Kolarov narrowly missed his free kick, but it's impossible to know if Balotelli had an adverse effect on it, and City gave up no more goals in the match. Nevertheless, Balotelli has been a major target in the wake of the draw, serving as the basis of several anonymously sourced claims of dressing-room unrest and many more columns on his disgraceful acts. Didn't anyone see that goal?
All we really know is that Balotelli was responsible for a performance that, irrespective of his reputation, was worthy of considerable acclaim. What does it say about our current attitudes towards Balotelli that many people have paid lip service to that brilliance and opted to fixate on his immaturity? And this transgression was relatively minor—this isn't a case of picking the bad over the good so much as of trumping up a bad that never should have been in the same argument as the good. We've simply rejected the sublime for inconsequential gossip.
Balotelli is interesting for many reasons, but his peculiarities are beginning to eclipse the fact that he has more talent than all but a few other strikers in Europe. Once upon a time, he and Alexandre Pato were the two best young forward prospects in the world, and it's easy to argue that Balotelli's been the better pro. He's goofy and reckless, too, and the tabloid attention is usually earned. But a clown prince is still a prince.
Correction: I initially wrote that Kolarov made a mess of his kick, which is wrong. It really was quite close.