When he was 21 years old, a Minnesotan under the pseudonym Bob Dylan recorded his breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. On it, he displayed a full cultural fluency with American traditional folk music and the lifestyles of those who inspired and created it, though his brand came with a unique twist upon which he would expand with subsequent releases. Many music critics believe that his three-album run of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde from 1964-’66 is among the finest eras of creative output produced at the hand of any single artist. His antagonistic attitude toward the media and the fans who turned against him fueled the rage which would revolutionize popular music over the course of the 1960s and ’70s. Some may disagree with his sensibilities and style, but it is impossible to discredit his impact.
By the time he was the same age, Bobby Fischer had recorded the only perfect score in the history of the U.S. National Chess Championship, striding into an impressive prime. A stunning rise in the chess world would see him become an American hero upon beating the Soviet Boris Spassky for the World Championship in 1972. He was already hinting at the unhinged tendencies which would eventually force his withdrawal from the public eye at the height of the Cold War before re-emerging as a hate-spewing shell of his former self.
Fans of Liverpool F.C. hope to see a similar prime from an exceptionally polarizing new signing. Mario Balotelli is equal parts Bob Dylan and Bobby Fischer, brilliant and maddening in complementary doses.
For the majority of his life, Mario Balotelli has known only soccer. It would probably be as difficult for him to see himself doing anything else as it would be for us. In what other vocation could someone of his disposition succeed in the way that he has? Even in another sport, it doesn’t make sense to imagine Mario Balotelli. Soccer is a game of immense expression. Whereas in popular American sports, we suffer through bland press conferences, coachspeak and a peculiar inability to celebrate, for fear of making the other team and its fans feel badly, it is not uncommon for a mob of teammates in soccer to join a goalscorer in a corner flag celebration, beckoning the crowd toward increasingly feverish exhilaration.
Balotelli has embodied the emotional chaos inherent to the game he plays for some time now. During spells at Italian clubs Lumezzane and Internazionale, he gained a reputation for being as incredible on the pitch as he was incredibly off-kilter away from it. Incidents and apologies abounded; meanwhile, Balotelli was a UEFA Champions League winner at the age of 19. That illustrious, questionable shadow followed him in August 2010, when he signed with Manchester City, reuniting with former Inter manager Roberto Mancini. Their contentious relationship and the controversies surrounding him underscored Balotelli’s rapid progression as a player.
The nature of Balotelli’s antics became such that anything he supposedly did sounded plausible. His litany of larks reached a peak during his time in Manchester, and it is extensive. A Google search for “Mario Balotelli crazy” will yield you top results from sites as wide-ranging as Business Insider and Bleacher Report, such is Balotelli’s imprint on recent popular culture. At this point, it has almost become trite to refer to Balotelli as crazy or to recount any of his actions, but that does not take away from their comedic value or bizarre nature. Among the alleged highlights:
- October 2010: Drives into a women’s prison just to see what it’s like
- April 2011: Pulled over with $25,000 sitting in the front seat of his Maserati, a police officer asks him why: “Because I can.”
- October 2011: Why Always Me?
- January 2012: Grime supergroup Ruff Sqwad releases “Mario Balotelli,” cementing the Italian’s place as a transcendent cultural superstar
- January 2012: Wanders around a high school and uses the bathroom before leaving in his Bentley
And the list goes on. During this time, of course, he helped Manchester City to its first major trophy in 25 years, the 2011 FA Cup, and its first league title in 44. His only league assist over three seasons with City won the 2011-’12 title. Let me run that by you again – his only league assist over three seasons with City won the 2011-’12 title. More than “Because I can,” more than driving into a women’s prison, this single act sums up the casual genius of Mario Balotelli. As Roberto Mancini often implied, Balotelli is great when he wants to be.
With the Italian national team, he further stated his case for belonging in the world discussion, scoring both Italian goals against Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinal and leading his underdog squad to the final. Upon scoring the second, he struck an iconic pose and immediately launched himself into uncharted territory, even for his cult heroism.
He memorably cried in his mother’s arms when Italy fell to Spain 4-0 in the final, but by that point Balotelli’s grasp on the dialogue of international soccer had reached almost Messi-Ronaldo levels. Finally, it seemed, he was on his way to becoming the mature, adroit player every mentor hoped he would be, transcendent celebrations aside.
A somewhat forgettable spell at AC Milan, during which Balotelli nevertheless averaged thirteen goals per season, and a goal against England at this summer’s World Cup gave way to a transfer back to England with Liverpool, fresh off losing its Uruguayan shark to Barcelona. In his first two league games at Anfield, the mercurial mad scientist did not score. The hype surrounding him far exceeded his reported £16 million transfer fee, particularly after the season his predecessor Luis Suarez had in 2013-’14.
Then, on Tuesday, Balotelli broke through in Champions League play. In front of his new home crowd against Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad, Balotelli displayed immense poise and immaculate skill in overpowering two defenders, finishing with a delightful strike in the 82nd minute. The goal proved paramount, as Liverpool sneaked out of its own stadium with a 2-1 victory.
Whether Balotelli makes significant strides at Liverpool is almost immaterial to his place in soccer lore; indeed, at only the ripe old age of 24, he is a league champion four times over in two different countries as well as a continental champion. To Man City fans, he is John the Baptist, delivering the good news before the good news and exiting unceremoniously. To his coaches, he is an anomaly, one whose majestic touch and knack for poaching comes complete with questions of discipline and desire.
By the time they hit 25, Bob Dylan and Bobby Fischer had reached the summits of their respective fields. Dylan got in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and stopped releasing purposefully impactful music, at least by most critical standards, until 1975. Fischer snored his way to chess history, through a semi-retirement and into successful comeback before the Spassky match, after which he decided against his veritable status as a paragon of capitalism’s dominance over communism.
Both of those men fought external battles which influenced and partly determined the actions they took. When examining Mario Balotelli through a critical lens, it is important to note, as many of his managers, teammates and rivals have, that his conflicts seem internal, that if he were to drop all the noise and commit entirely to his trade, he would be the conqueror of worlds (and World Cups). Balotelli himself seems to believe this, having once remarked, “Only Messi is better than me” before amending that statement to include Cristiano Ronaldo.
After Tuesday’s display, Liverpool fans have reason to hope that Balotelli has not yet reached the highest possible height. They desperately hope they’re right, and many of them likely pray to that end. The curious case of Mario Balotelli seems no longer to be in divine hands, however. As far as God-given talent goes, this Italian has it in unfair proportions. With the weight of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool and the dreams of the Azzurri on his shoulders, it is increasingly likely that the only player better than Mario Balotelli could, in fact, be Mario Balotelli, should he pursue that fate. This season may be the turning point Balotelli needs to break free of his freewheeling folk hero image and re-define himself, on his own terms, as only he sees fit.