It is surely fair to suggest that Mario Balotelli is, pretty universally, considered something of an enigma. Talented, impulsive, impetuous, individualistic, flamboyant, daft, probably even somewhat endearing; essentially anything but ordinary. Standing 6ft 2in and combining exceptional natural athleticism with a fearsome strike, Milan deem the Italian worthy of a £20 million fee while barely out of his teens despite an already long-established flair for controversy. Balotelli, contests the prevailing wisdom, possesses all the characteristics of an elite footballer and should he reign in his often destructive, maverick excesses, should develop into one of his generation’s finest talents. His maturity and temperament may be questioned but his talent stands alone. Or so the argument goes.
Statistically at least, such promise appears vindicated with 30 goals from 44 appearances since arriving in Milan, an impressive tally for an emerging talent adapting to an alien footballing environment. Still, given his reputation such numbers offer only partial respite. For comfort amongst the world’s elite, goals alone are too crass a barometer. Something else is required. Something more. Those willing to proclaim Balotelli as the very embodiment of that something else, that intangible property that distinguishes the great from the merely very good are myriad but that is not to say their ruminations should be so blindly accepted. Those who work with the 23 year-old daily, are rarely shy in stressing the superlative nature of the forward’s technical gifts and of course, their positions offers them a privileged vantage point to judge from. But are they right? Is he actually that good?
Portrayed as a man adorned simultaneously with the physique of a number 9 and the technique of a number 10, Balotelli’s ownership of the former is undisputed but the range of his talent perhaps does not stretch to incorporate the subtle gifts essential to the latter role. Admittedly, such synthesis is seldom seen, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic arguably the only active player said to fully satisfy both criteria. Balotelli is certainly closer to emulating the Swede than fanciful fantasists such as Nicklas Bendtner and Marko Arnautovic but nonetheless he remains some way short of the man’s virtuosity. A weakness for a flashy trick and a showman’s soul are very different things from an innate understanding of football’s delicate geometry but in Balotelli’s case, such predilections appear to have masked an absence of less eye-catching but infinitely more important attributes. Part of Lionel Messi’s genius, at least in the eyes of his former manager Pep Guardiola, resides in his distaste for the hollowly flash; in his game needing ‘zero adornments.’ The purity and extent of the Argentine’s gifts render step-overs and ostentatious flicks unnecessary. Balotelli does not have this comfort and much like Cristiano Ronaldo, instead must crave the attention attendant from chicanery; whilst genius makes the game look effortless, the charlatan can always be detected in their want to over-complicate.
Still, for all his flaws, it would surely be great if Balotelli was the genuine article. Even his most puerile, thoughtless indiscretions seem borne out of naivety and intrigue rather than malice or ego. His interview with Noel Gallagher doubtlessly revealed a man possessed of a certain charm and having outstanding sportsmen keen to go so willfully against the grain should forever be welcome. Sadly however, now things have changed. Milan are willing to sell and with Arsenal in search of a world class forward, could Balotelli be the answer? Given his tender years, the Italian has ample opportunity to prove himself worthy, could that place be at the Emirates?
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