City's joker in the pack Balotelli looks ready to have last laugh

Stoke beware – the young Italian striker has finally found reasons to be cheerful in Manchester, as Ian Herbert reports

Click to follow
The Independent Football

"Oooh Balotelli, he's a striker, he's good at darts. An allergy to grass but when he plays he's f***ing class. He drives around Moss Side with a wallet full of cash. Oooooh Balotelli..."

Mario Balotelli told his friends last week: "There's this new song! I think they like me!" The new anthem that Manchester City fans have made up for the 20-year-old Italian draws on some of the scrapes which have littered his first season in England, but if you can predict one thing about this wildly unpredictable individual, who may well start down City's right in tomorrow's FA Cup final, then it's that he'll appreciate a decent joke, told against himself.

There's a great sketch featuring the then 17-year-old which was shot a few years back by the Italian satirical TV show Le Iene, whose presenters doorstep celebrities and send them up. The Italian sports press had been reporting how Balotelli was completing his exams while playing for Internazionale so the programme somehow cornered him at Inter's training ground and made sure his general knowledge was up to scratch.

So we see Balotelli reciting lines from a Giosuè Carducci poem while jogging, and answering on the life and times of Napoleon in the midst of press-ups. Considering how creased up he is by the presenter's audacity, it's some performance. Balotelli has also been nobbled a few times by the cult satirical show Striscia la Notizia, another exponent of the celebrity doorstep, whose victims tend to be in the news for the wrong reasons and are presented with a gloomy-looking miniature tapir.

The Italian press had been full of stories that Balotelli had been talking about Milan, his boyhood idols, in Jose Mourinho's Internazionale dressing room so Striscia went armed with a Milan shirt after tracking Balotelli to a bar. They left the shirt behind when they'd gone, along with a concealed camera which was still recording when a sheepish Balotelli heeded the pleas of locals in the packed bar to pull the shirt on.

Such is the background to what became a hugely controversial gesture in Italy. The full story was too complicated to explain when the shirt issue cropped up with British journalists last week, so Balotelli settled for an acknowledgement that it was a mistake.

The point is that Balotelli does have a well-developed sense of fun. "He is joking most of the time," Patrick Vieira, his friend and confidante at City explained last week, though the partisan environment of the Premier League – a humourless place at times – doesn't always get it. That's why Balotelli's mischievous suggestion that he was the best striker in Manchester found itself translated as a slight on Wayne Rooney.

Balotelli, much like Rooney, does have an impulsive streak, of course. There's about as much chance of the Italian forgoing his impulse for high jinks as of the Englishman containing the red mist which can take him over. Both are players who live and play on instinct and Mike Rigg, the City technical director whose role leading a global scouting team includes the compilation of 30-page dossiers on the club's signings, observes that the history of both Manchester clubs is littered with players who have "unpredictable" characters, as he puts it. "Like George Best. If every player was Pablo Zabaleta, who is the one you can set your store by like none other, then life would be easy," Rigg says. "But unpredictable on the field often brings unpredictable off it."

No one is denying there is room to mature. In many respects, Balotelli is a 20-year-old going on 14. He will always drive the half-mile down Manchester's Deansgate to his favourite San Carlo restaurant because he loves to show off his car. There's rarely anywhere to park it legally outside but he knows he can afford the parking fines and leaves it where he stops it. Logical, yet indefensible – but that's not stopped Manchester's growing curiosity with the Balotelli story, which no one could have predicted with confidence would last more than a month when he flew in last July.

Balotelli had never even holidayed in Britain before Roberto Mancini signed him for £24m, and the sense of isolation and inactivity as he struggled with a knee injury through the autumn and winter did not seem to lend itself to success. City were meticulous about filling the long periods he had to himself – though that impulsive streak has always made him averse to others organising him, and if there's a pre-planned itinerary the mischief in this young man will tell him to dodge it.

Mancini has asked Vieira to watch over him – "my brother" was how Balotelli described the French veteran last week – but everyone knows that an older sibling cannot help you all the way into a new life. He has had to do it his own way and Mancini's sons, Filippo and Andrea, closer in age, have become friends. Aleksandr Kolarov has also been important – many of City's players find the Serbian defender the most likeable of companions – though Balotelli has felt as comfortable with academy players as with his older, married, team-mates. Playstation and occasional concerts at the MEN Arena are among his preferred down-time activities – not always the choices of City's family men.

And in the background, there has been the significant presence of Mancini, an individual whom Balotelli and his family value most because of his transparency. One of Balotelli's most significant observations last week was that "Roberto has never lied to me" – which sums up their relationship.

Mancini himself undoubtedly grew up faster when he left his home near Ancona for Bologna but he has known loneliness. He once described spending "my evenings closed off in my room, dreaming up different ways of escape" having left home. It was Sampdoria's owner, Paolo Mantovani, who watched over him after he made his big-money move to Genoa.

Perhaps Balotelli's lowest point came at the turn of the year with the recurrence of the knee injury which saw him sent to recover without distraction in Vermont. The incidents that have earned media attention have actually been less significant than they seemed: the dart story broke a month after it had happened, and Mancini was less than pleased to discover Italy's coach Cesare Prandelli had not established this fact before using it to beat Balotelli with.

As for that incident, the "missile" in question from the Carrington games room and its inappropriate use by Balotelli was not deemed worthy of a disciplinary inquiry until the news got out. Likewise, the allergy-to-grass story caused national hilarity when it surfaced in Kiev, though City's coaches had already been treating the striker for it before the club's Europa League trip.

All grist to a chant-writer's mill, though, and the stories' publication does not seem to have troubled the Italian much, his perception by the fans apparently being more important to him than what people outside east Manchester think of him.

Balotelli will not be content until he is scoring freely, but the key relationship seems to be developing. "What's the name... Lech...?" he said, trying to recall the name of City's new "Poznan" celebration last week. A low-flying jet then drowned him out. "It's Stoke. They don't want us to speak about them," he said, grinning. It was a joke. Balotelli's been around long enough now for us to know that.