Here is a partial list of things Mario Balotelli did the last time he played in England:
- Got into a fist fight with his manager.
- Scored 20 goals.
- Lit his bathroom on fire while setting off fireworks.
- Threw darts at youth team players.
- Stomped on an opponent’s face.
- Won a 50-50 ball at edge of the box and wrapped a pass into the path of teammate Sergio Aguero, who scored a goal to beat QPR 2-1 and clinch the Premier League title for Manchester City on the very last kick of the season.
Balotelli — who’s on the verge of returning to the English Premier League with Liverpool after a two-year stint in Milan — has managed to become a mythic figure before the age of 25. Everywhere he has gone he has scored goals at a rate that ranks among the best in the league, and everywhere he has gone he has left under somewhat contemptuous circumstances after an accumulation of controversies.
He helped Manchester City win the league in 2012, only to be cast aside the next season.
He single-handedly dragged Italy into the final of Euro 2012, only to take the brunt of criticism for Italy’s World Cup failure two years later.
He scored the most goals in Serie A since arriving in 2013, only to leave Milan on a smaller transfer fee than he came in for.
“Why always me?” A riddle that Balotelli introduced after scoring a goal against Manchester United in 2011. It somehow fits:
Balotelli is magnetic in a way few other players are. He’s not in the class of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and the other top players in the world when it comes to production and ability. But the way you watch Messi — where your eye involuntarily follows him, even if the ball is on the other side of the field — is the way you watch Balotelli.
By sheer force of personality, he draws you in. And every once in a while you are rewarded with something spectacular:
What he does on the field is only part of what makes Balotelli one of the most entertaining figures in world soccer. This is a man with a life-sized statue of himself in his house. This is a 24-year-old who gave his $US250,000 Bentley to a teammate, and was disappointed when that teammate removed the camouflage wrap. This is a guy who posted an Instagram video of himself ironing and dancing while reading the autobiography “I Am Zlatan” by the Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic — who could be described as Balotelli’s spiritual cousin:
He’s unpredictable and self-destructive, but also brilliant.
Balotelli’s history tells us his tenure in Liverpool will involve at least three off-the-field controversies that are too strange and specific to make up, about 13 goals per season, a suspension of substantial length, a falling-out with Brendan Rodgers, and a trophy or two.
These are the reasons we follow sports — to witness feats of athleticism, bask in controversy, enjoy outsized personalities, and be there to experience something we’ve never seen before. They are the same things that make Balotelli so compelling, and so easy to love.
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