Column: Balotelli can shake off clown tag in Italy
"A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma:" Winston Churchill's famous description of Russia easily could be applied to Mario Balotelli.
With one important difference: Hidden inside the jumble of myths, stories and questions that Balotelli lugs around is a fabulous soccer player. Is, not was. It will be great for him and for soccer if he now gets to prove that again at AC Milan.
When headline-hungry tabloids were picking over his off-field life in England and toward the end of his stint with Manchester City, when he wasn't playing or contributing as much to the team, it became easy to forget just how thrilling Balotelli can be with a ball at his feet, a player who not only can make fans stomp in delight but also scratch their heads and laugh in disbelief.
Against Norwich City, remember that goal he scored with his shoulder? Other forwards would have headed in the ball. Balotelli, just to be safe, probably should have, too.
Safe? How boring. Balotelli nudged it in with right shoulder, cool as you like. Brilliant. Many goals are forgettable. That one will live long in the memory. Balotelli's unpredictability, his downright craziness at times, makes him an entertaining if not always reliable footballer and that is no bad thing.
As former Oasis star Noel Gallagher, a fan of the Italian, said in one of Balotelli's rare interviews in England: "Footballers in general in this country, they're quite boring and dull and I love you because you're Balotelli and you make me smile."
Standing out also has worked against Balotelli. In Manchester, photographers kept their lenses trained on him because there was always the chance that he would do something silly, perhaps fight with a teammate or manager Roberto Mancini. But when Balotelli was just doing mundane things — stroking a cat, climbing into his car with its custom camouflage exterior — photos of him still helped pay the bills.
Balotelli courted attention. Allowing friends to let off fireworks in his house and set fire to the toilet curtains in October 2011 was a gift to newspaper headline writers. Doubly so because this was before City's astounding 6-1 defeat of crosstown rival Manchester United, an epic match where Balotelli scored twice.
But he was a victim of attention, too. The goldfish bowl of the media spotlight isn't an easy place for a 22-year-old to thrive. Some of the stories about him were true. He is, for example, allergic to dry grass and he really did come back with a trampoline when his mother sent him out to buy an ironing board.
But he told Gallagher that many of the stories about him weren't true, that he didn't once give 1,000 pounds to a homeless man, drive around Manchester as Santa Claus or pay for everyone else's fuel as well as his own when he filled his car.
Balotelli, the soccer player, got lost in this maelstrom of stories. That was a shame.
Without Balotelli, City likely wouldn't have won the Premier League last year, "the miracle of Manchester" wouldn't have happened. In the waning seconds of the season, with City locked at 2-2 with Queens Park Rangers and needing another goal to take the title away from Manchester United, it was Balotelli who collected the ball in front of QPR's goal from Sergio Aguero.
Because of his strength, Balotelli he was able to hold off a tackle. He started to fall the ground but still was lucid and quick enough to swivel and flick the ball back to Aguero, into the path of his teammate as he sprinted into space. Aguero scored. The blue side of Manchester went delirious.
In the blue of Italy, Balotelli was also impressive at the European Championship last year. He was earnest when he had to be. He scored both Italian goals in a 2-1 semifinal victory over Germany. After the second goal, he stripped off his jersey to show off his tattooed, muscular body.
"If anyone is angry for my celebration, it's because they saw my physique and they're jealous," he said.
That was Balotelli at his best.
Back home in Italy, when he is closer to his family, it would be gratifying if he can become that good again. Milan director Umberto Gandini said the club's agreement with City is dependent on Balotelli passing a medical.
That Balotelli likes to clown around doesn't make him a clown. Now is his chance to have the last laugh.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester