Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  How do you solve a riddle like Mario Balotelli?

In June 2009, 18-year-old Mario Balotelli was in Rome, training for the Under-21 Euros. He was already a famous boy; a sparkling, athletic, dangerously quick forward for the rampant Internazionale, which had picked him up from his provincial hometown team of Lumezzane in Brescia, and hothoused him into their senior squad.

Italy, which had won the 2006 World Cup by dint of shrewd hard work rather than individual genius, had not entrusted its heart to a talented whiz kid since Francesco Totti, the capricious No.10 who never entirely lived up to his promise on the international stage. It was longer still since the team had been led by a striker who could be universally adored, the way Roberto Baggio, who had never won a world cup—who, indeed, had lost one when he missed his penalty shot in the final match against Brazil in 1994—was adored. Now people wondered whether Balotelli was his generation’s Baggio, a talent in which the country could once more place its greatest hopes.

The question of universal adoration, however, was settled definitively one evening that June, when Balotelli reportedly called a local police station to tell them he had been assaulted by a group of drunk men, who had chanced upon him out on the town with his teammates. They had racially abused him and thrown a bunch of bananas at him, to signify that he, a black man, was more monkey than human. Balotelli appeared not to have reacted to the abuse, and waited instead for the police to escort him back to camp. Immediately, Internazionale, his club, condemned the incident, and lauded Balotelli for his dignified behaviour under pressure. Gigi Casiraghi, the clever and well-liked coach of the Under-21s, said to the press: “Mario has behaved in a very mature way. He didn’t respond to provocation and minimized the episode."

And minimized the episode. And minimized the episode. If the sounds of Europe’s football racism were spun and played back in a parody dubstep remix, it is this phrase, rather than the monkey noises that resound through stadiums when black players win the ball, that would drop first. Even in the 21st century, disrupting play in response to racial abuse can make the abused player, rather than the racists, the target of penalties.

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These are not popular attitudes in a sport which prefers the cool cheek of someone like the Barcelona player Dani Alves who, this April, picked up a banana thrown at him during a league match, and ate it (the #weareallmonkeys campaign, which Alves had planned, went viral, but has achieved precisely nothing).

Instead of becoming a martyr to dignity, Balotelli has become a counter-provocateur. His admirers and detractors both accept, and perhaps enjoy, the impression that he is “crazy". As evidence, there is his variety of ill-chosen haircuts, his tendency to mouth off, and his penchant, off-field, for doing things just because he can. His antics are often touchingly victimless misdemeanours. In 2010, he tried to drive unauthorized into a women’s prison because, he said, he “wanted to see what it was like". Once, pulled over for speeding in the UK, he said, “because I am rich", when a police officer asked him why he was carrying £5,000 (around 5 lakh) in his wallet.

Perhaps the ability to do things on field that the vast majority of humanity cannot would cause the doors of perception to swing erratically on anybody’s hinges. Some footballers are a joy to watch because you never know when their next magic trick will appear, but Balotelli is not one of them. With his exhilarating combination of strength, agility and grace, he can do more than the one or two great things that many excellent strikers are capable of.

At the age of 23, he can often display an absolutely reassuring solidity. On 4 May, the statistics aggregator confirmed that this year, in his first full season for AC Milan, he had more shots on goal than any other Serie A player this season. He scored 14 goals, an impressive number in an exceptionally poor season for the club. And he is beautiful to watch: There are hints of an incipient stateliness to his style, particularly in those moments when he slows play down, toying with his markers; watching him step over the ball in the last third of the field, it is possible to see both effort and spontaneity of the highest order. At his best, the near-bionic perfection of his movements can make you despair for less superb players.

But he is also touchy, moody and erratic, and has been accused of poor impulse control. This is true to an extent. He can be inattentive; it is often possible to spot the exact moment in a match when he starts to get bored. All this distresses people, especially those who are anxious for him to become a stoic example of valour in the face of odds, so that he may shame his haters.

European football, which has a long tradition of designating various kinds of black footballers as “crazy", is also fortunate in its ability to attract and nurture those who, by sheer force of will—like Samuel Eto’o—or intellectual acuity—like Lilian Thuram—strike a balance between mature protest and gritty perseverance.

Italy is as good a place as any to learn that perseverance—grinta, as they call it—in football. What it cannot teach, though, are methods to teach black men to turn off the sound in the stadiums on match day. And here the problem with levelling those classic criticisms made of black athletes—of poor impulse control, and poor work rates—begin to emerge. Balotelli seems to have an inner ear bent to the chorus of hate that swells out of the crowds he plays for, and against. His critics, annoyed at how often he gets a pass for being inattentive or emotional, argue that if every little bit of criticism from the stands is designated as racist just because it is levelled against Balotelli, it is tantamount to giving him a free pass for playing badly. But racism, on field as in the real world, does not operate by simple logic. If dehumanizing abuse is directed at you in three games out of five, your mind does not magically erase the threat of hearing it in the remaining two.

The truth is that since the day he became famous, Balotelli has often behaved like the only sane person in an insane world. As match officials and football administrators try to keep the show on at all costs, and footballers who should be walking off the field in solidarity when the monkey noises begin instead appear only to ignore the systematic and vicious dehumanization of their black colleagues, it becomes harder and harder to recognize that the natural human response is not always one of reasoned grinta.

In 2011, having scored a goal against Manchester United when he was playing for their rivals Manchester City, he took his shirt off in celebration, revealing a T-shirt printed with the legend “WHY ALWAYS ME?" He had just been in the news for another shenanigan—he, or his friends, had set off fireworks in his bathroom—and as he explained briefly in an interview to Time magazine, he was trying to tell people to leave him alone. Many people were delighted by the T-shirt, which they saw as one more indication of his “craziness". Far too few, at least in the press, found it tragic that he thought about wearing it at all.

In 2014, back in Rome training for next week’s tournament, Balotelli found himself racially abused by bystanders again. Perhaps his concentration is really all that stands between Italy and the world cup, this year, or in 2018, or in 2022. He is already, we might argue, his generation’s Totti. Perhaps one day he will be its Baggio too, and stand in front of a goal, waiting to hit a world cup-winning penalty.

But, independent of whether he scores or misses, we will never know now what Balotelli will hear in that fateful moment—the white noise in which most footballers do their best work, or the annihilating drone of a thousand voices, telling him to eat a banana.

Supriya Nair is an editor at Caravan.

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