‘If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs and blaming it on you’, reads a line of Rudyard Kipling’s infamous poem, If.
The words could barely be more appropriate at this moment in time for Manchester City forward Mario Balotelli. The Italian forward is once again in the spotlight as another season littered with his mysterious actions draws to a close.
Last week, he entered the press conference at the San Siro unannounced to congratulate Andrea Stramaccioni on becoming the new manager of his former club Internazionale after Claudio Ranieri was sacked.
This was the latest in a long line of histrionics. The list is too long to go into much detail, but includes rumours of him setting off fireworks in his bathroom, spending late nights at strip clubs and throwing a dart at a youth team player in a training ground ‘prank’.
Roberto Mancini has said that he would “never” trust Balotelli and his actions have received much criticism from pundits and journalists alike. Gary Neville on Sky’s Monday Night Football talked of how his behaviour could be a distraction to his teammates, while the Independent’s Ian Herbert suggested Roberto Mancini’s ‘indulgence’ in Balotelli could prove unwise.
But all this is forgetting that his performance on the pitch since the turn of the year has been one of Manchester City’s positives, as they have seen a five point lead turn into a five point deficit.
The chants from the Manchester United fans in Ewood Park’s Darwen End on Monday night were “City’s cracking up”. And they had a point. Foolish comments in the media from Mancini and Patrick Vieira along with a poor run of results on the pitch suggest that the pressure could be getting to the blue half of Manchester.
But not Mario Balotelli. On and off the pitch he remains his normal self – as cool as ever on it and predictably unpredictable off it. In fact, much of the credit for the fact that they are still in the title race – at least for the time being – should be given to Balotelli.
When his teammates appear nervous, fatigued and unsure of themselves, it is the Sicilian who has stayed cool and mentally strong, producing what is required in pivotal moments during games.
Last Saturday, he was unflustered in tucking away a first-half penalty to bring City level before firing in a shot to set the stage for Aleksandar Kolarov’s late equaliser.
That is not the only big game that Balotelli has had a vital contribution in this season. Back in October, he opened the scoring in the memorable 6-1 drubbing of rivals United, revealing his now infamous ‘Why always me?’ t-shirt in celebration. Also in that game he bamboozled Jonny Evans, leading to the Northern Irish centre-back being dismissed for a professional foul, before adding the second City goal.
Then in January, it was Balotelli who stroked a last minute penalty nonchalantly past Brad Friedel after being brought down by Ledley King to extinguish Tottenham Hotspur’s title hopes at the Etihad.
It is clear that the pressure is getting to many at City, both players and staff, while the fans are reported to have come across as somewhat agitated and tense against Sunderland last weekend.
Across town, Manchester United have, so far, kept their cool, with Sir Alex Ferguson casually laughing off suggestions from Vieira that the return of Paul Scholes indicated desperation at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, the team are going about their business with the minimal of fuss, keeping their patience and their heads to turn what looked to be heading for a 0-0 draw at Ewood Park into a 2-0 win.
The one man at City who can say the same is Balotelli. Yes, he got into an argument over who should take a free kick on Saturday, while he has shown evidence of a childish streak (see his inexcusable stamp on Tottenham’s Scott Parker in January).
But we must remember that he is only 21 years of age – many promising youngsters have to overcome similar problems at that age – David Beckham and Wayne Rooney are just two of them. How many other 21 year-olds would appear so certain in scoring a high pressure penalty kick with such unflappable composure ten times out of ten?
The list of great footballers who are, in some way, slightly flawed is endless. Eric Cantona, George Best, Paul Gascoigne, Diego Maradona and Zinedine Zidane are just a few examples whose character wasn’t what you would call ‘the model professional’.
Looking further afield, away from football, Tiger Woods has had his problems; Britain’s three time Olympic champion sailor Ben Ainslie ‘lost it’ at the world championships in Perth in December while even the most relaxed man in sport these days Roger Federer was thrown off practice courts in his late teens and early 20s for bad attitude. Hence, there is little to worry about for City, as long as they manage Balotelli well.
There is talk of the club hierarchy letting him leave in the summer but should they win the league, they might want to reflect on big game contributions of their number 45 before allowing him to find another club. Should they not win the league, they would be foolish to forget the contribution of the one man who helped them stay in touch with United, keeping his head when others were losing theirs.