Sometimes a player’s reputation on the field isn’t matched by his reputation in the front office. Sports history is littered with examples of feuds between star players and management, sometimes ending with the former being driven out of town and sometimes ending with the latter being fired by ownership. Italy’s Mario Balotelli is one such player who may forever be defined by his attitude rather than his playing skill, even if his playing skill is profound. The player affectionately nicknamed “Super Mario” has created a long litany of headaches for team managers, most recently Liverpool’s manager Brendan Rogers. Rogers and Balotelli are waging a war of words in the newspapers and on social media, with both sides gambling with high stakes that they’ll come out ahead both in the public image and on the football pitch.
An Unmanageable Player
Jose Mourinho has forgotten more about football than the vast majority of the world will ever know. The Chelsea manager has a long list of credentials and accomplishments to back up the statement that he’s the very best manager in the sport’s history, including four World’s Best Club Coach awards and two UEFA Manager of the Year awards. As such, when Mourinho says that Balotelli is an “unmanageable player“, it’s worth asking whether or not Mario is capable of being truly managed by anyone. Roberto Mancini of Manchester City, Balotelli’s then-squad, agreed with the premise and noted that he had urged Balotelli not the throw his career away on eccentricities. What, exactly, are the cardinal sins arranged against Balotelli? For starters, he’s known to be friends with members of the Italian Mafia. He was punched in the face prior to a game against Dynamo Kiev and said that it was a result of allergies to the grass on the pitch. He carried £5000 on him and, after a police officer noted it in a car crash, Balotelli justified carrying so much cash with a simple “I’m rich.” Once he took a boy to school in order to yell at teachers who had marked the lad truant. After winning £25,000 at a casino he generously gave £1000 of his winnings to a homeless man. All of these examples of unorthodoxy or just plain weirdness add up to make an enigma of a player and a headache for a team manager. The recent news around Anfield wonderkid of yore Albert Riera getting sacked due to a poker-related incident should sound to Balotelli like an indirect warning sign to consider more discrete options when he feels the gambling itch, or try videogames like GTA when the in the mood for greater trouble. After winning £25,000 at a casino he generously gave £1000 of his winnings to a homeless man. All of these examples of unorthodoxy or just plain weirdness add up to make an enigma of a player and a headache for a team manager. The recent news around Anfield wonderkid of yore Albert Riera getting sacked due to a poker-related incident should sound to Balotelli like an indirect warning sign to consider more discrete options when he feels the gambling itch, or trying videogames instead of real life when in the mood for greater trouble…
The Liverpool Saga
Balotelli enjoyed a strong 2013 season with AC Milan that caught the attention of the EPL. Liverpool was so enamored with his skills that they willingly paid a £16 million transfer fee in order to get Balotelli to once again put on the red and yellow crest. It looked like a solid move for the team after scoring over 100 goals in the season prior but losing in the third round against Manchester City, with the need to bring in an accomplished penalty kicker like Balotelli to capitalize on fouls. To say that Balotelli has had a poor season to date, however, would be an understatement. Super Mario has scored all of one goal in the Premiere League on the season to date, leading to him being taken out of games by team management as early in the season as October. Both Balotelli and his agent began to criticize the move, with Balotelli claiming on social media that “someone doesn’t like me” while his agent claims that manager Brendan Rogers asks Super Mario to do things that “no other manager does.” In December, Balotelli was suspended a game and fined £25,000 for a controversial image he posted on Instagram; Balotelli responded that he was not anti-Semitic and his grandmother was Jewish. Finally, his disagreements with team captain Jordan Henderson about taking penalty kicks led to him being ostracized by the braintrust running the show at Liverpool. He missed games due to illness, whether real or imagined, and has since created the question of whether the team should sit him full time thanks to a winning streak in his absence.
Rogers is stuck between a rock and a hard place with Balotelli. He could gamble that the Italian will be able to provide crucial clutch goals, like his 83rd minute winner over Bestikas in February. The flip side of the coin is that Balotelli’s negativity and refusal to be a team player could be harmful in the dressing room. There’s no small irony that Balotelli’s love of gambling — which is adored and criticized by fans at the same time — now forces the team manager to gamble on the star player. While it’s easy to gamble for fun, it’s harder to do with sixteen million pounds tied up in the decision. At the moment, however, the solution appears clear since Liverpool is undefeated in their past ten games: they can’t afford to shake up team chemistry with a wildcard like Balotelli.