Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Curious Case of Mario Balotelli

I’ve read a lot of articles about the current and apparent ‘bad boy’ of football, Mario Balotelli, and I thought I’d add my tuppence worth. Hopefully, this is a different angle than has been considered.

I’ll start with a caveat, I don think Super Mario’s behaviour is becoming of a top level footballer and he seems to be far more trouble than he is worth. However, I think there is a problem in football with the way players with certain issues are treated.

In the late ‘80’s, we saw the rise of a flawed genius from Newcastle namely Paul Gascoigne.

Gazza was a brilliantly erratic player but one who found his most difficult opponent in his own head.
He was painted, by the media, though re-enforced by colleagues, as a clown. Indeed, his behaviour on and off the pitch would seem to confirm as much. But reading his autobiography, reveals a man who was quite clearly suffering from a mental disorder that was either undiagnosed or ignored.

As long as he was playing well, his foibles were ignored. It’s a largely unspoken truth in football that you can be forgiven for pretty much anything as long as you perform. The results driven agenda make it a true meritocracy but an amoral one.

This, in Gazza’s case, was merely masking a much larger problem. And, as has become apparent since his retirement, football was, as hard as it may seem, keeping him on straight and narrow. Sadly, his descent into a public laughing stock leaves football's reputation tarnished by association. Football is embarrassed by his behaviour and opts to bury its head in the sand rather than confront mental health issues.

For every Ryan Giggs, it seems, there is a Paul Gascoigne (or, more appropriately, Lee Sharpe). Young, gifted and then instantly rich and famous. All of this thrust upon them regardless of their capacity to deal with it.
And, likewise, for every Alex Ferguson, fastidiously controlling the hype, expectation and even the minutiae of the youngsters’ personal affairs, there are other managers and clubs who negligently overlook their responsibilities as, in a fashion, surrogate fathers in favour of milking as much as they can of such players without any consideration for their mental condition.

Which brings me back around to Mario Balotelli. His short career is littered with theatrical performances and these appear to have polarised opinion - from 'he's a complete tosser' to 'it's quite amusing'. However, we shouldn't caste him with either scorn or mirth (yet) as neither of these actually deals with the issue that is quite obvious: there is something wrong with him.

It has become de rigueur to vilify footballers for their earnings and easy life. We baulk when they suggest that they want to leave a club if they are unhappy, as if their contracts are written in blood yet very little attention is paid to players, like Balotelli, in understanding their mindset and how upheaval, lack of positive influences, education, intelligence, ability to adapt to new cultures, languages and scrutiny will affect them. They are, after all, human beings and susceptible to the same problems and vices as you or I. Their wealth does not buy them exemption from this.

Consider this, if Balotelli had a broken leg, we wouldn't criticise him for not being able to play but deep rooted, psychological problems are far harder to distinguish and their intangibility means they are rarely considered worthy of sympathy in this very masculine world but they are a real problem.

I only hope that football has progressed enough to not let what happened to Gazza, happen to Mario. Support groups exist for gambling, alcohol & drug addiction. These resonate with us because British society accepts these as issues while mental disorders are still stigmatised. To me, Balotelli is not a figure of ridicule or hate. He is someone that needs help.

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