I’ve never worked the Manchester City beat, but during their recent trips to the United States, I’ve been able to see a little of Mario Ballotelli’s interactions with teammates. So like some of you (but unlike most of you), I wasn’t surprised to read that he’s generally a harmless, attention-starved kid who’s more playful than malicious. Not that he doesn’t have a huge petulant streak, and not that being playful can’t be a huge distraction. But for the most part, Mario is just a character, if an oblivious one.
At least, that’s the image former teammate James Milner portrayed recently when asked if he missed the recently sold Italian:
“I do miss him, actually,” said Milner. “He was crazy, he liked to be the centre of attention and it was like having a 12-year-old in the dressing-room at times.
“But he was a good guy, he was harmless and I hope he does well in Milan …
“You’d get those days where you’d think ‘Mario – not today, leave it out,’ but it was very hard to hate him, despite the crazy things he did.
“At times Mario would step out of line and one of the lads would tell him. If he ever did that, it would go off, but half-an-hour later he would come in and apologise.”
No news here. It’s the messenger is noteworthy. It’s one thing for a current teammate to say nice things with an eye to preserving a relationship, but Milner doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. In all likelihood, he’ll never have to share a locker room with Balotelli again, yet he persists with what many felt where obligatory platitudes.
Might Mario Balotelli be less of a distraction than we assume?
Let’s not go that far. Take this episode at a club event:
“You had to keep him busy. We did a Christmas event for some children at the ground and Mario had to wait about half-an-hour to do his bit.
“We were thinking ‘what can we do with him? He’s going to be an absolute nightmare.’ He ended up sitting in on an interview with Joe Hart for 20 minutes, then someone gave him an iPad to play Angry Birds on.
“You had to keep him occupied until it was his turn to meet the kids, but once he did he was great with them.”
That’s not ideal. You need to tend to him, and you probably need a club with a strong, veteran leadership structure in place. Who knows if Massimo Ambrosini will have this kind of patience at Milan, particularly when Balotelli will be higher in the pecking order there than he was at Manchester City.
But as Milner details, there is a way to deal with Mario, which is more than you can say for other distractions in world soccer.