Seeing Mario Balotelli on the touchline at the Champions League final was a throwback to the time when he was raising hell at Manchester City. The same smouldering presence. The same sartorial elegance. The same sense that he would really rather be somewhere else. Predicted score, Mario, for the BT Sport team who are paying you very well? ‘No comment,’ he replied.
He became a preposterous figure within these shores by the end; a cartoon character who revealed that T-shirt, ‘Why always me?’, whilst scoring two goals in the 6-1 hammering of Manchester United at Old Trafford in October 2011.
How we laughed at that gesture at the time, though wasn’t there something rather tragic about the lack of self-respect?
No-one ever really answered that question Balotelli posed or unravelled the mysteries of his interior mind – certainly not Roberto Mancini, so loathed by his own players towards the end that there was not a single positive word to be found when City showed him the door. The tracks of Balotelli’s career – nine moves in as many years after City – tell the own story of what happened next.
Those clubs were all presupposing that they would unlock the genius that Balotelli’s football sometimes hinted at – altering his body shape to glide a ball, first time, past Jonny Evans, and score that first goal against United – but it was maddeningly always out of reach.
Mario Balotelli was part of BT Sport’s coverage as Man City won the Champions League final
His presence was a throwback to the time that he raised hell when playing for Man City
Pep Guardiola is more likely than anyone to have been the right person to keep Balotelli on track and locate some consistent brilliance beyond all of the madness around the Italian
Amid the lunacy and attention-seeking – the fireworks being let off in his bathroom, the dart fired at a youth team player – there were occasional hints of a different Balotelli, struggling to get out.
I remember discovering that he had quietly become a regular visitor to a refuge, the Booth Centre, beside Manchester Cathedral, that helps hundreds of the city’s homeless each year.
When the cathedral staff were staging a sponsored sleep-out to raise funds for the place, I made inquiries to see whether Balotelli would agree to offering a few quotes and a private photograph, to be distributed to media to support the venture. The word came back that getting him there for something stage-managed would be impossible; he only operated off-the-cuff.
He looked very out of place on that TV panel on Saturday night. When City had won the final and he had drifted out onto pitch, perhaps a little of the 32-year-old Balotelli reflected on what might have been, had he come under Pep Guardiola’s supervision at City.
A ludicrous notion, many would say, because of Guardiola’s utter intolerance of any who waste his time – Joao Cancelo being a case in point. Yet intolerance is not the same as indifference.
Jack Grealish seems no more a Guardiola-type than Balotelli, but the manager has invested precious time in getting to know him and understanding what might help improve him. A river of words has flown since City’s triumph on the banks of the Bosphorous, though none more powerful than Grealish’s tear-streaked tribute, just after the final whistle, to Guardiola. ‘He put so much faith in me’, Grealish said. ‘Even when I was crap.’
Guardiola will accept foibles and indiscretions if a player has an obsession with the game and that was the impression of Balotelli I was left with after an hour or so in the company of one of the few people who really knew him: his foster mother.
I last saw her on a Sunday morning in the winter of 2009; a tiny, formidable woman, Silvia, who clambered into the ludicrously huge people-carrier which was laid on to whisk her from Manchester’s Deansgate – Mario’s latest abode at the time – to the airport.
Roberto Mancini (right) struggled to unlock the genius that Balotelli sometimes hinted at
Jack Grealish seems no more a Guardiola type than Balotelli but the Spaniard has been able to get the best out of the England international after a difficult first season at the Etihad
Guardiola’s side beat Inter Milan in the final of the Champions League to complete the Treble
It had been one of her periodic trips, limited by her husband’s poor health, to be with him and she had wanted to see Manchester Cathedral, where my own son had not long been installed as a chorister. As we walked through the cloisters, she talked about young people needing, above all, individuals who would give them their precious time.
That seemed to be how she viewed him, really, a boy out of place, away from home sooner that she’d hoped. But he had this football obsession and that was that. The family pinned their hopes on Mancini giving Balotelli some of his precious time, though beyond a few public pronouncements that he would become one the top five players in the world, the manager seemed just to wait and hope for the best. The player’s agent, the late Mino Raiola, who put the fear of God in some of Balotelli’s family, seemed a far bigger influence in his life.
There were a few more hints of that potential on the field. The pass which set up Sergio Aguero for the 2011-12 title winning goal. And then he was gone.
A relationship of the kind that Grealish has formed with Guardiola requires a player to give as well as take. ‘To understand him, you don’t even have to know too much about football. It’s more about curiosity, a willingness to accept a non-conventional mind,’ says Marti Perarnau, a writer and friend of Guardiola.
That might have been beyond Balotelli, though if any manager had the capacity to locate some consistent brilliance beneath the madness, then it would have been him.