Of Mario Balotelli much has been said concerning his mercurial temperament, immaturity, and of course his potential as one of the finest strikers in all football. The young man nicknamed “Super Mario” who plays for Ligue 1 club Nice and the Italy national team is enigmatic it’s true, but many overlook the truth of timing and combinations determining everything in sport.
When rumors surfaced Mario Balotelli was to get £1million as a bonus for “being good” via his Liverpool contract, traditionalist fans of the game scoffed. “Why should any player be paid to play by the rules?”, some asked. After all, if a player cannot control himself on the pitch…
The sentiment bore a sound logic, and rewarding Balotelli for avoiding red cards seemed ridiculous. However deserving Balotelli may or may not have been of criticism, many thought Liverpool severely mismanaged a precious talent. While the Italian footballer’s immaturity is evident, what’s also clear is football’s leadership believing money can solve any problem.
Balotelli’s reputation as a “hot head” is nothing unique in sport. Fiery athletes are, as we say in America, “a dime a dozen”. Super talents being traded back and forth is common in the annals of sport as well. My mind falls on some of the greatest sports figures of any era, players who are now considered the gods of sport. Wilt Chamberlain (image above), arguably one of the most dominant athletes of all time, swapped teams and coaches repeatedly until traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where team immortality awaited. In tennis, bad boys are a fixture.
Turning to tennis, bad boys are a fixture there. Ilie “Nasty” Năstase earned his nickname, and Jimmy Connors and McEnroe were giants of the sport despite the “hot head” labels. Then there is the iconic Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest American football (NFL) legend of them all. Brown was always the defiant controversial one, except on the field where he has no rival to this day. Where soccer is concerned, who can forget the likes of Ariel Ortega (below), who was compared in his youth to the great Maradona, who was also notorious for his temper? The list of superstar athletes with tempers and tempestuousness is endless, but my point is well made.
My examples do not excuse bad behavior however. They do point to an unmentioned reality where Super Mario is concerned though. A quote from the striker below gives us a hint at what inspires him to greater heights, and it is certainly not cash.
“(Lucien) Favre has very good character. He knows how to deal with young players. I like him a lot. I have to say (Roberto) Mancini is special for me because he’s the first one I met. but I think Favre can be one of the best managers.”
Reading in between the lines here (if I may), what Balotelli means when he says he “likes” Favre is really that he “respects” the notorious perfectionist. Respect from a “hot head”, how many times have we seen this motif play out in films and in real life? The Liverpool people tried to buy off Balotelli, and the bribe to be good could not even been delivered! Clearly, judging from the striker’s buying habits and eccentricities, money is not something he is overly impressed with or covetous of. This respect facet of the Premier League’s relationship with this interesting athlete seems highly relevant for me.
On the subject of chemistry, we find many sports legends build, not the least of these is the dynasty built by the greatest college basketball coach who ever live, UCLA’s John Wooden. For football fans reading here, athleticism and excellence is not exclusive to one sport over another. Some will not recall how Wooden’s UCLA Bruins so dominated basketball back in the 1960s and 70s, and often without the quintessential superstar like Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar). Wooden’s teams won 10 national championships in twelve years, no team has since broken this record, and no team is likely to for some very specific reasons. Wooden, who was perhaps the biggest proponent of team chemistry ever, was had many brilliant quotes. One pertains perfectly to the career of Mario Balotelli:
“A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.”
The Bruins’ coach was also famous for his ability to adjust, to teach each player in his charge as a unique individual. Looking at Balotelli’s “case”, if I may call it that, the young man has only made typical mistakes considering who he is. This is also key to understanding his potential, even if we are billionaire club owners with tendencies to quantify everything numerically. The short version here is that Liverpool and the other clubs where Balotelli failed to perform to expectations did not possess the right chemical properties. The fit was just a bad match.
With coach Wooden’s philosophies as a backdrop, something else he believed in is key for helping athletes like the fiery Mario Balotelli succeed. Wooden believed in a focus on character rather than reputation, where teaching his players was concerned. He often said:
“Reputation is what you are perceived to be, and your character is what you actually are, and I think the character is much more important than what you are perceived to be.”
Young athletes like Mario Balotelli do not often run into legendary coaches with the time to spend individually. From the fan or management perspective, a player spitting on others or acting aggressively sends a signal that is often misinterpreted. While the world of professional sports need not excuse radicalism or the inexcusable, perceiving intensity as unruliness is commonplace. My assessment of Balotelli is that he has never come to terms with how to express his competitiveness and desire. This is a function of immaturity and of improper guidance. I suspect that bad chemistry in between Balotelli, some of his coaches, and even his teammates weighs heavily on his failures. His temper, a function of his passion and competitiveness, reminds me of something the great Pele once said:
“Enthusiasm is everything. It must be taut and vibrating like a guitar string.”
Finally, it may be overly analytical to slice and dice Mario Balotelli as a kind of “variable” here. Even so, the player is a commodity, like it or not. As either a multi-million euro commodity or a component in the historic fabric of the sport of soccer, understanding what will make Super Mario more successful will also make the sport better. At least this is my logic. Maybe he should stay in Nice, what do you think?