Tuesday 22 August 2017 / 07:29 PM

Aftermath from Mario Balotelli’s tweet

Almost two years ago, Mario Balotelli pulled into Manchester City’s Carrington training complex in a £160,000 Bentley wrapped in camouflage vinyl. If this was the Italian’s attempt to shy away from the limelight, espionage is not a post-football career for him. 

From bathroom fireworks to throwing darts at youth team players, the Liverpool striker is not naturally prone to keeping his head below the pulpit. So it came as no surprise to see a goading comment from his @FinallyMario Twitter account after the shock result that deepened the gloom over the red half of Manchester. But nobody should be exposed to the torrent of abuse that followed.

Back in 2011, Balotelli’s infamous answer of “because I can”, to the police officer who questioned why he had £25,000 cash on the passenger seat of his Maserati, was arrogant – but he had a point. He was earning £100,000 a week at the time. Sunday’s horribly distasteful abuse goes far beyond such obstinate behaviour. The same answer will not go far in a court of law for the accused. 

It is not the first time the 24-year-old has suffered at the ignominious hands of racists. Italians heckled him during a training camp ahead of the summer’s World Cup finals, and he was abused by ultras on several occasions while playing for Inter and AC Milan. Ahead of Euro 2012, British newspaper The Guardian reported him as saying, “I will not accept racism at all. It’s unacceptable. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail, because I will kill them.” 

He is, of course, human. Perhaps those who took to Twitter with such vile remarks are too morally reprehensible to realise this. 

Twitter has provided the world with a precious insight into the characters behind our footballing cavalcades, one that without it leaves only the word of tabloid newspapers and sensationalist gossip. Its misuse is the obvious pitfall. Many professional sportspeople have been accused of indifference towards their careers in the past, but the blue bird lends a milk crate to those who really care.

The footballing talents of Balotelli and his peers bring escapism to millions around the world every time they don a pair of boots. Not many workplaces would allow their employees to publicly mock a rival’s misfortunes, but gentle derision has long been a tradition in football. Let it never become as sterile as the bubble-wrap, lawsuit-crazy office environment. Mario Balotelli did not break any rules in poking fun at Reds who have thrown scorn on Manchester City and Liverpool (and vice-versa) since the day they could talk. He is allowed his say.

The very same afternoon that these mindless ‘fans’ offered Balotelli’s jest a response, the Chelsea faithful stood and applauded Frank Lampard at the City of Manchester Stadium despite his 85th-minute equaliser in a sky blue shirt. These were the same supporters who welcomed Galatasaray’s striker Didier Drogba back to Stamford Bridge, lauded Gianfranco Zola when he stepped out of West Ham United’s dugout, and cheered Jimmy Floyd Hasselbank’s strike against them, for Charlton Athletic in 2006. These are real football fans.

In May 2011, 20-year-old Balotelli was widely reported to have helped a young autograph-hunting fan to overcome problems with a school bully. Upon discovering the boy was not in school because he was being picked on, the Manchester City striker drove him and his mother to see the headmaster and mediated as the classmates exchanged grievances cordially. Those who took to Twitter to express their vile views on Sunday would not show anything like the same bravado upon meeting the subject of their abuse face to face.

Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers have arguably one of the most talented athletes on earth at their disposal and they already have a hard task channelling his eccentricity to guide this considerable potential. Just as you can’t take the aggression out of Wayne Rooney or the flair out of Cristiano Ronaldo, to suppress Balotelli’s extravagance would be to suffocate his personality – and, most likely, his ability. That would be a tragic waste for football.

There will be fireworks at Old Trafford when Liverpool visits on December 13. The real football fan can only hope they come from Balotelli’s boots, not his bathroom window. Unless that fan happens to support United.

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Tom Pountney

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