Am I Crazy to Like Super Mario?
I have a guilty secret that I hesitate to confess because I know it’s going to be hard to justify and will probably write me off as a football analyst in the minds of many perfectly sane people.
But what can I do? My name is Dave Gardner and I’m a Mario Balotelli fan.
I don’t much like the Italian’s petulant hissy fits when his teammates don’t pass him the ball and he has far too much money for a 24-year-old. Case in point: he drives a Bentley with a camouflage paint job.
It’s just that a football game is much more interesting when he’s in it.
I’ll go so far as to say that I’m not particularly bothered about watching Liverpool if he’s not in the starting line-up. When he’s substituted I might switch channels to watch Swansea V Leicester. It’s a real problem.
My suspicion is that there are far more of us out there than you would think.
For as good as the modern game is – and I genuinely believe it is faster, more skillful and exciting than ever – it is sorely lacking in real characters.
There was a reason why true professionals like Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law put up with the antics of George Best. He would arrive hung over for a game at Old Trafford and once admitted to having sex at half time, but one sway of his hips would have the entire stadium going the wrong way let alone the opposing defenders.
He didn’t track back all that much, he probably wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in a Jose Mourhino team, but to watch a magician like that with a football at his feet was to feel your heart swell with such ardor it was like a schoolgirl crush.
Frank Worthington, who played for Huddersfield Town but thought he was English football’s answer to Elvis Presley in the 1970s, used to hold up the game every time he took a corner against West Ham because he’d be telling jokes and swapping banter with the (usually very antagonistic) home fans. When he was called up for an England international abroad he turned up at Heathrow Airport wearing cowboy boots, a red silk shirt and a lime velvet jacket. Needless to say, Alf Ramsay was not impressed.
Countless other mavericks litter soccer’s past – Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh, Paolo di Canio, Paul Gascoigne. Many of them probably never reached the heights they should have, but the stage was theirs for the taking and the fans adored them even if their managers weren’t always so enamored.
Would they make the grade in today’s corporate culture? At least Balotelli keeps himself fit. Lunch for these guys after a training session would be three pints of bitter and a steak and kidney pie.
It’s not such a great surprise that Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane believes he can one day bring his advanced metrics philosophy to soccer. Balotelli beware – the ‘Moneyballs’ guru had lunch last week with Liverpool chairman Tom Werner and owner John Henry.
I don’t care about heat maps and passing stats. Who really gives a fig if a player has abs or runs around like a lunatic for 90 minutes if he never kicks a ball more than two feet and scowls at the referee every time he blows the whistle.
Perhaps I’m being naïve, but isn’t football supposed to be fun? When is the last time you saw a top flight player laugh during a game? And I don’t mean that sardonic smirk when a decision goes the wrong way.
It’s not just football. When I started working at a national newspaper in London I used to wonder why all the older journalists disappeared on the dot at 11am when the editors went into their morning news conference. I quickly learned that a bucket of champagne was waiting for them on ice in the pub across the street. A quick glass or two of bubbly, a straightening of their bowties and they were ready to go to work.
Needless to say it doesn’t happen now. The reporters take their lunches at their desks and all the old eccentricities were put out to pasture long ago.
To become a great artist in anything requires a certain degree of lunacy in my opinion. In soccer, as in life, these characters are being increasingly marginalized.
“Super Mario” has already gone through three big clubs – Inter, Manchester City and AC Milan – and it’s hard to see him lasting too long at Liverpool, a club that never had much time for prima donnas.
But I will keep watching Mario Balotelli and I will continue to wait patiently for that one moment of magic that lifts my heart and takes my breath away and reminds me why I love this game.
And if that doesn’t happen I can always have a good laugh at the gall of a kid who is so clueless he swaps jerseys with an opposing defender at half time of Liverpool’s biggest match in years. Why is it always about me indeed!