Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Balotelli Curve

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 When he thrust his spikes into Alex Song's knee, popular opinion finally and perhaps definitively swung against Mario Balotelli. The Italy forward leapt into numerous dangerous challenges during Manchester City's weekend loss to Arsenal and finished the match copping a pointless red card in the tie's waning minutes. He arrived in the sheds to a power of criticism flung from all corners of the football world.

Indeed, the collective noun for public comment on the excesses of football should now be known as a Balotelli of criticism. Furthermore, the amount of public and unsolicited comments could then be measured on the “Balotelli scale”, where Luka Modric asking not to play earns one Mario; Tevez leaving the bench merits four. When someone – probably Tevez – eventually tops the scale's theoretical maximum of five Marios, the internet implodes as if heaved past the event horizon.

The latest Balotelli farce probably earns the player a two-Mario rating. Sure, it was only a compound of (at best) dangerously laissez-faire and (at worst) malicious challenges and an unnecessary/overdue red card; however, it has generated scorn apparently from the ether. While this last escapade has been a long time coming, it becomes evermore apparent that Mario Balotelli has the godlike ability to create from nothing.

The problem is with Balotelli. It always has been. The greatest change has not come from him or his surrounding crew of enablers, but the situation in which his antisocial behaviours have been emphasised.

Earlier this season as his hijinks became more playful and less embarrassing, footballing hoi-polloi and aristocracy alike fell head-over for him, even beginning to invite and mythologise his crazy ventures. He became one of the most popular footballers in England, including being the feature of a ninety-minute BBC Radio special (with the deceased Robert Enke, the only footballer to earn such individual discussion on radio 5Live's Sport Special podcast stream). Mario Balotelli wasn't just tolerated, as he was during his first jolting season in England, but appreciated.

Then City stopped winning. And everything changed.

You can plot social reaction to Balotelli quite easily – it follows a sin curve, ululating steadily as mass perception of him swings from charming, innocent savant to daemonic avatar. Certain key incidents both fuel the perpetual transition and troll the waters of public comment. The limpid furore provoked by these most recent indiscretions, though minor in isolation, follow a “What the?” moment where he interrupted an Inter Milan press conference and indicate Balotelli approaches the curve's nadir.

Most striking about this oscillation is how closely it mirrors expectation and performance. Each occasion the graph turns to the negative, expectations for Balotelli or his club become unsustainable. As the descent towards Sunday's impropriety began, his actions were thought not antisocial but eccentric and he was scoring regularly for the runaway league leaders. With each loss, red card and press-conference greeting (by the way, this was only the second-most awkward sporting presser last week) tolerance for possible manifestations of low-grade emotional disorder was further eroded .

There is almost no greater truism in sport than “winning makes individualism OK”. However, when a statement is as patently true, the inverse is also therefore accurate: individualism isn't abided when you're losing – it can't be. The sooner Mario Balotelli understands this, the smoother this waveform will be.

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