Suddenly, Mario Balotelli doesn’t seem quite so amusing anymore.
One could fill pages, and grateful newspaper hacks regularly do, with stories both real and surely imaginary about the insouciant playfulness of the striker whose goals are edging Manchester City ever closer to the English Premier League title.
A soccer millionaire with friends who let off fireworks in his bathroom, who has turned up for work wearing a woolly hat that looked like a chicken’s comb and who was filmed struggling with the simple task of pulling on a vest is going to generate headlines and laughs.
This 21-year-old kid in a grown man’s body excels at both.
Ho-ho, Mario. The question — “Why Always Me?” — that Balotelli had printed on his T-shirt when City thrashed Manchester United 6-1 in October must surely have been a joke, because his high jinks make the answer obvious, but there is nothing even remotely humorous about a player who stamps on an opponent’s head. That would be an act of nastiness.
Does Balotelli have a streak of that inside him, too?
It’s a legitimate question after on Sunday he trampled on the right ear of Scott Parker, the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder whose job of breaking up opposition attacks with his solid tackles puts him in harm’s way and often leaves him face down in the grass.
The video replays looked bad, but one can never be sure that they tell the whole story. Only Balotelli can be certain whether he aimed to hurt Parker or stepped on him accidentally.
With City and Tottenham tied on two goals each and with just eight minutes left, Balotelli struck powerfully for goal. Parker bravely blocked the shot, the ball ricocheting off his thigh as he threw himself in the way of the City forward. In doing so, Parker also tripped, hit the deck and became entangled in Balotelli’s feet, sending the Italian tumbling, too.
As Balotelli was falling, his right foot kicked downward and thudded, with the studs of his boot, onto Parker’s head. Slow-motion replays clearly showed the sequence of events. It certainly looked vicious, but what the videos could not prove was whether there was intent from Balotelli.
City assistant manager David Platt said he had not seen the incident and so he wasn’t prepared to judge it.
“Different angles on TV can show different things,” he said.
Which is true.
However, professional players and their bosses have repeatedly shown that they cannot be relied upon for honesty in such situations. There’s too much resting on soccer — money, pride, results, loyalty to club or country, even jobs — and win-at-any-cost deceit is too ingrained in the modern game for those involved to confess on a regular basis when they or their players have sinned.
So when Real Madrid defender Pepe issued a statement to say that his stamp last week on the hand of Barcelona forward Lionel Messi was “an involuntary act,” we could only take his word for it, even if our eyes suggested something different.
Occasions when a coach acknowledges that a player was wrong and that a referee was right are sufficiently rare to be refreshing. That happened on Saturday with Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Mick McCarthy.
“I don’t have any complaints about the sending off,” McCarthy said after Karl Henry was shown the red card for kicking backwards into the Marc Albrighton’s chest when the Aston Villa midfielder was on the turf. “I’m not excusing him at all because he’s back-heeled him.”