2014 FIFA World Cup, 32 players to watch, Featured, May 2014

32 Players to Watch in Brazil 2014: #25 Mario Balotelli

Soccer's permanent resident in "The Tyson Zone", Mario Balotelli

Soccer’s permanent resident in “The Tyson Zone”, Mario Balotelli

Neil W. Blackmon

You may want to visit our friends at Free Beer Movement for a beverage recommendation before you read our take on the enigmatic (that’s not even remotely a strong enough word) Italian striker Mario Balotelli. More than any player in our countdown, Balotelli is unique: a quarter diva, a quarter misunderstood, a quarter dynamic, a quarter neurotic. He’s as prodigious an attacking talent as Italy have produced in over a decade. He’s also a sensitive fire alarm in a smoke-filled room. Expect anything and everything. Except boring. He’s never that.

Have your beverage? Great. Read on– but to get the idea of how these pieces work- check out our piece on German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who came in just behind Balotelli at #26 on the countdown.

Number 25: Mario Balotelli

Country: Italy

Position: Forward

Club: Milan

American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Mike Tyson, Retired Heavyweight Champion of the World

Yes, we went for it. But Grant Wahl went there first.

Mike Tyson isn’t just one of the greatest heavyweight fighters in history– a boxer who is arguably the last truly relevant heavyweight in a sport that desperately needs a relevant heavyweight champion-– he’s a cultural icon, for better or worse.

It’s impossible to know for certain what history will say about Tyson. His boxing credentials are debated but he’ll likely fall on the “All-Time Great” side of that metric. His abilities and talents as a boxer, however, will forever be obfuscated to some extent by everything that has happened with him out of the ring, but during his career and since his not-so-graceful retirement.

Tyson was at least headed toward decline when he went to prison for sexual assault. He made a comeback- and in fairness a reasonably competent one– but the sideshow of antics, incidents, statements and controversy, both in and out of the ring, never escaped him and largely swallowed any genuine narrative about the comeback from a pure boxing perspective. Since retiring, Tyson has continued to intrigue popular imagination, whether it be in movie cameos where he owns a pet tiger or something as simple as an appearance at a Floyd Mayweather fight, like we saw this past weekend.

He’s quotable, sometimes loveable, sometimes worthy of disdain, sometimes redeemable, never predictable and always entertaining.

Tyson fascinates. More than any athlete of our generation, there’s truly a “What will he say or do next?” that draws us towards him like bad drivers who slow down to see the depth of a car accident on the interstate.  His reputation for unpredictable behavior is so strong it makes almost any story about something Tyson says or does believable. That’s what happens when your inventory of crazy involves things like: offering a zoo handler cash to box a gorilla, biting off the ear of an opponent (Editor’s Note: Luis Suarez would like to remind you that this, standing alone, isn’t enough), suggesting your next fight should be with Jesus Christ, spending three-hundred million dollars on hookers, blow and..wait for it…pigeons, and threatening to eat an opponent’s children.   The last example, in video, from a (in)famous interview with Jim Gray:

Moments like the video above have immortalized Tyson in the sporting lexicon in ways his tremendous boxing career could not have standing alone. There’s an even a term in the cultural lexicon for athletes (and celebrities, I suppose) who exhibit “Tyson-like” behavior: Bill Simmons coined it “The Tyson Zone.”   An athlete enters the “Tyson Zone” when the following terms are met: If a friend said, “Did you hear that (fill in celebrity’s name) just (fill in the insane behavior: swam with great white sharks without a cage, began horses and rhinos to see if it would create unicorns, etc.?”, you would have no problem believing it was true.

To date, various athletes have entered the “Tyson Zone” on a few occassions: Dennis Rodman, Metta World Peace, Tiger Woods at Thanksgiving, Manti T’eo and his “dead girlfriend”, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding– but only with perhaps the exception of Rodman, and in soccer circles, Diego Maradona, has another athlete seemed to constantly live his life in “The Tyson Zone.”

Which leads us to Italian forward Mario Balotelli.

Camo Bentleys. On the next Duck Dynasty.

Camo Bentleys. On the next Duck Dynasty.

I hated “Never Have I Ever…” in high-school because I wasn’t cool and usually wasn’t invited to play anyway, and even if I was at a party (rare) and did get to play (rarer) I pretty much “Never Have I Ever…done anything” so it wasn’t fun- but let’s use the teenagers game to open a discussion about Super Mario, if only because this piece started by talking about Tyson and we’ve jumped the shark by default as a result.

Have you ever:

1) Taking a selfie with your pet pig?

2) Had a pet pig?

3) Driven your car (in Mario’s case, a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta) on a go-kart track?

4) Played the national anthem on a grand piano?

5) Thrown darts at a co-worker? Multiple co-workers?

6) Bought a camouflage vehicle? (Balotelli bought a Bentley camo-ready)

He scored twice the next day.

He scored twice the next day.

7) Thrown fireworks in your, or better yet, your friend’s house to see how loud the explosion is?

8) Then did a PSA talking about how dangerous fireworks are?

9) Driven to a local high school, used the facilities, and left?

10) Had a mock sword fight at a restaurant and get kicked out, fined, and wake up the next day and dominate at work like nothing ever happened?

We could go on, but here’s another link.

Mario Balotelli, more than any athlete in soccer, fascinates. Balotelli lives his life in “the Tyson Zone”, and does so unabashedly. If you follow him on Twitter @FinallyMario, you’ll see a man who is practically confused as to why your laughing, cynical or surprised. Balotelli the person thinks everyone should live their lives the way he does- in the moment, with little thought of regret and little shame about yesterday.

Like Tyson before him, Balotelli’s personal life commands so much attention that he’s oddly undervalued as an athlete. There’s real irony there, of course– if Tyson and Balotelli were just “average, run-of-the-mill” athletes their antics would be either intolerable or at the least, far less headline worthy. It takes prodigious talent for folks to care and pay attention– but we give so much scrutiny to the absurd the magisterial talent gets lost along the way.

Tyson's upbringing explains quite a bit. So does Balotelli's.

Tyson’s upbringing explains quite a bit. So does Balotelli’s.

Just as Tyson would carry personal baggage into the ring and wear it without reservation on his shoulder, Balotelli plays soccer with emotions at the ready. At Manchester City, Balotelli would feud with teammates and even his self-proclaimed “father figure” coach, Roberto Mancini, about playing time and deployment. He garnered four red cards in two seasons and would pout and complain to the English tabloids when things weren’t going well. Of course, there were the moments of absolute brilliance as well– a Man of the Match performance in the 2011 FA Cup, a critical pass to Kun Aguero to help City capture the Premier League title in 2012. Eventually, however, Balotelli wore out his welcome and headed back to Italy, where, it’s worth noting, he’s no less a controversial figure, and probably is more heavily scrutinized.

And it’s under the home scrutiny that admittedly, the Tyson and Balotelli connection breaks down. As Grant Wahl notes in his piece linked at the top:

“Balotelli’s hijinks aren’t sinister– he has never been arrested–and more often are funny and endearing, the why always me? T shirt he revealed after scoring a goal for City; the time he got tangled up trying to put on his substitute’s bib during warm-ups; his childlike fascination with pet piglets, go-karts and lions.”

Balotelli isn’t a convicted felon and, if you listen to most his teammates in Milan, he’s not a problem in the locker room. An unwanted distraction sometimes? Sure- but so are most NFL diva wide receivers- with whom on this level he compares more adequately. If you ask members of the Eagles or 49ers or Cowboys whether Terrell Owens was worth it, the bet here is the majority will say “Yes”, without question, because Owens positively impacted winning. Balotelli does the same, and when he’s right, he can be a massive difference maker.

Mike Tyson’s tough upbringing in a poor Brooklyn home is well-documented.  There’s only so much use for the “you are a product of where you came from” thread, however. Tyson’s criminal history and personal antics can’t simply be explained away because he had it rough as a kid. There’s some of that, to be sure, but in the end, Tyson has become a product of his own choices. The good news? After years of casting blame on his past and others, Tyson seems to understand that, and is increasingly comfortable with himself. Of course, he’s been out of the sport as a competitive athlete for a decade. It took that long.

"Forever Italian", Balotelli says. This despite all the resistance and racism that too often surrounds his form.

“Forever Italian”, Balotelli says. This despite all the resistance and racism that too often surrounds his form.

One can hope that Balotelli’s own personal fight for contentment goes faster. What’s certain, however, is that the anonymous and structural dynamics that have affected and likely influenced who Balotelli is- and to some extent, will have a say in who he becomes– are different than Tyson’s upbringing in poverty or his later-in-life alcoholism.

Born in Sicily to Ghanian parents, Italy’s arcane immigration laws meant that he couldn’t officially become a citizen of Italy until his 18th birthday. He spent his early years in foster care, where he’s admitted it was rare to see other black faces. His outlet was soccer- an artificial turf field near the home of Francesco and Silvio Balotelli where he began playing the game at three. He watched DVD’s of Maradona and used his vast talents on the soccer field to do his talking for him. Because he could play, the bullying he received because of his skin tone never seemed quite as bad. Still, racism takes its toll.

By the time Balotelli made his debut for Inter Milan at 17, he’d dealt with racism at all levels of Italy’s youth soccer program. And he still wasn’t a citizen- carrying a Ghanian passport because the law didn’t care that he’d lived his entire life in Italy. When he turned 18 and became an Italian citizen, there was little question who Balotelli would decide to play for internationally– but his “merit” as a “true Italian” was still tested by Italian fans and worse, the press.

Ultimately, Balotelli became the first black man to play for Italy in a major soccer tournament. And he played quite well. Despite this, and despite a concentrated effort from PR firms in Italy to utilize Balotelli as a sign of a progressive Italy, a representative of the new, culturally-diverse Europe– the racism continued.

Beloved when he produces, Balotelli is the focal point of Prandelli's more attacking Italy.

Beloved when he produces, Balotelli is the focal point of Prandelli’s more attacking Italy.

The bar is different for Balotelli. When he plays well, he receives country-wide adulation- praise that has always existed at Milan but occurs less elsewhere. When he doesn’t play well- the criticism is more intense than for white Italian players. There’s a lack of fairness and heightened vitriol. This cruel paradox seemed to reach its apex in a game against Roma in May. Racist chants from Roma “ultras” directed at Balotelli caused a referee to temporarily suspend the match. Balotelli urged the game on- a different stance- it should be noted- than the one taken by Ghanian midfielder Kevin Prince Boateng in an exhibition game that same year. Wright Thompson featured this incident, and largely, the experiences of Balotelli, in his piece on racism in Italian soccer.  The writing in that story is outstanding and it provides a window, or lens, in which to view Balotelli that is useful. There’s a sense that Balotelli will always be a bit of an outsider, even in the country he calls home. That’s a heavy burden, especially for a 20-something year old kid. None of this explains away all of Balotelli’s bizarre behavior, but it certainly is a persuasive factor.

This summer, Balotelli the “outsider” will be critical to a World Cup most in Italy consider to be a “Redemption Trip.” The 2012 EURO was step one of Italy’s penance for the disasters of South Africa 2010. The 2014 World Cup is step two, and all that is acceptable at home is great success. Italy have, to some extent, reinvented themselves under manager Cesare Prandelli. Gone is the catenaccio, defend-first reputation of the past and in is a more attack-heavy, high-line of confrontation style that exploits the vast riches Italy have in the midfield at the present moment, led, as ever, by the timeless Andrea Pirlo. Yet Balotelli, smart tacticial writers like Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox argue, will be the central figure.

Balotelli was given his chance to play for Italy by Prandelli almost as soon as the new manager took over after the 2010 World Cup debacle. Rejecting a Ghanian call-up (“I am forever Italian”, Balotelli said)– the forward rewarded his manager with multiple goals at the European championship. Yet there were questions about his consistency and his role moving forward in World Cup qualifiers. It was in those matches where Prandelli’s reliance and role for Balotelli reaped the largest reward. His ability to play as a lone forward since returning to Milan has given Prandelli flexibility with Italy- and you’ll often see him in that spot regardless of Italy’s opening formation. Prandelli and Italy began utlizing a 4-3-3, but shifted to a more attacking 4-3-2-1 system, with two runners supporting Balotelli, often Emanuele Giaccherini drifting out wide to the left, and Claudio Marchisio remaining more central. Either way, Balotelli is the focal point in attack.

It works, of course, because Balotelli is a rare talent– he can do all the things you want two forwards to do at once– hold the ball up, receive short passes and distribute, spin and receive the ball over the top, shoot accurately, pass accurately. It’s a heady checklist, but Balotelli does all of that and still digs in with a great work rate (one his club managers would like to see more often, no doubt) to help defend. Italy have scored more goals this cycle than in any Italian cycle in the past twenty years. That’s remarkable, and a testament to Prandelli finding the right formula.

There is still a “Good Mario/Bad Mario” element to the forward. He can be moody when he isn’t involved and his temper can get the best of him. We saw it at Manchester City, we saw it early this season in Milan and we’ve seen it for Italy at the last EURO. But if Balotelli can harness his natural passion– a Golden Boot and a deep Italian run aren’t out of the question.

Or he could score no goals at all. Nothing with Balotelli should surprise us.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.

Neil W. Blackmon