Why we love nutters like ‘Mad Mario’ Balotelli
If there’s one thing that can bring rival football fans together, it’s a player or manager who’s bonkers.
A funny thing happened on my Twitter timeline when Manchester City scored against Chelsea this week. Football fans of all persuasions professed their love for the goalscorer Mario Balotelli. The enigmatic Italian striker has become something of a cult hero. He is technically ineligible for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, but most football fans would agree – particularly those with a sense of humour – that he is the outstanding candidate.
How do we explain the nation’s affection for Balotelli? For a start, most fans outside the blue half of Manchester don’t very much care for his club. No longer the lovable losers of yesteryear, Manchester City now ticks all the right ‘must-hate’ boxes: filthy-rich foreign oil-tycoon owner trying to buy success, homegrown players displaced by overseas mercenaries and stadium-naming rights flogged to an Abu Dhabi airline. Moreover, Balotelli himself embodies what many people see as the worst attributes of the modern footballer. He is the consummate anti-role model: he has more money than sense, flaunts his wealth, is prone to brattish sulks, doesn’t celebrate goals and frequently loses his discipline. And yet not only is he adored by City fans, many rival supporters love him, too.
Why have we taken a footballing bad boy to our hearts? My theory is that there are three types of footballers who inspire affectation across the boundaries of club allegiance. Firstly, there are the fantasy players like George Best, Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane or Diego Maradona. These are the football magicians whom we’d pay good money to watch. Secondly, there are the battlers: the fight-them-on-the-beaches types who you’d want alongside you in the trenches. They are not always the most gifted players but they lead by example, spill blood for the cause and galvanise those around them. Think Terry Butcher in a bloodied head bandage or Roy Keane snarling, yelling and driving his team-mates forward. You’d detest them if they were on the opposition side but you’d love them in your team.
Finally, there are the 24-carat nutters. Balotelli falls into this third category. He’s a talented footballer, but he’s yet to realise his potential. Nor would you want him with you in the trenches – he’d be a friendly fire incident waiting to happen. No, Balotelli is loved for the simple reason that he’s as mad as box of frogs. You see, if there’s one thing we Brits can’t resist, it’s a good old fashioned eccentric. Take Jose Mourinho, for example. The nation first swooned over the Portuguese coach when he went berserk at Old Trafford in 2004 as his Porto team knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League.
Mourinho has a gargantuan ego – not a quality we particularly admire in others. He managed a Chelsea team which was widely loathed for its new-found wealth. His teams play a pragmatic brand of football that British fans instinctively dislike. And yet we love him. Why? In part it’s because, in an age of air-brushed media-trained blandness, Mourinho is a big, colourful personality. He is witty and charming. During his tenure at Stamford Bridge he had cynical English sports hacks eating out of his hand at press conferences. But what we love above all else is that he’s bonkers. One minute he’s the suave, sophisticated Continental tactician, the next he’s cavorting dementedly on the touchline like Bez from the Happy Mondays.
As with Mourinho, what endears us to Balotelli are his bizarre antics on and off the pitch. Two weeks after arriving in Manchester, he wrecked his Audi R8. When police arrived at the crash scene, they asked Balotelli why he had £5,000 in cash in his pocket. ‘Because I am rich’, replied the Italian. Since then, he has repeatedly created headlines with a series of comic capers: throwing a dart at a youth-team player, setting off fireworks in his house, suffering an allergic reaction to grass, giving £1,000 to a tramp, driving a truant to his school to confront a bully, having a hilarious fight with his training bib, being subbed for a botched back-heel in a pre-season friendly and, most recently, breaking a pre-match curfew. Balotelli celebrated scoring in the 6-1 drubbing of United by revealing a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Why Always Me?’. The Guardian’s Simon Hattenstone described this as a ‘genius sentence with more meanings than words’. In fact, no one has the foggiest what he meant, but that only serves to enhance his legend.
Manchester City fans pay tribute to their quirky striker with a catchy terrace chant: ‘Oh Balotelli he’s a striker, he’s good at darts; An allergy to grass but when he plays he’s fucking class; He drives around Moss Side with a wallet full of cash.’ What I like about the song is that it celebrates not his goals but his madcap antics. It’s a refreshing riposte to the moralism that has infected the modern game. Every week we have to endure sanctimonious pundits frothing over badly behaved footballers. Overpaid, foul-mouthed, thuggish, disrespectful…blah, blah, blah. What people forget is that football is theatre. We’re there to be entertained, not to receive moral instruction. And therein lies the appeal of Mad Mario. He delivers top-notch entertainment. Football needs more nutters like him.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside