Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has an excuse ready in case things go wrong. Because even he seems unable to predict which Mario Balotelli will show up: the nonchalant striker of impressive goals or the young man who can at times appear immature and as hard to manage as nitroglycerine.
This weekend, at Liverpool, it was the latter. Mancini played Balotelli as a second-half substitute, hoping his strength and hammer of a right foot would produce the second goal City needed to win and pull farther ahead of Manchester United at the top of the English Premier League.
But after only 18 minutes, Balotelli was trudging forlornly back to the dressing room, gently guided by a police officer in a fluorescent yellow coat who put a protective arm around him. Referee Martin Atkinson sent him off for two overzealous, but not malicious, tussles for the ball, first with Glen Johnson and then Martin Skrtel. The Slovakia defender rolled like a hooked fish on the Anfield turf while his teammates claimed Balotelli had elbowed him. They bayed for punishment from Atkinson, who obliged.
With Balotelli gone, the score stayed 1-1 and the questions began for Mancini. He and Balotelli, two Italians earning a good living in the north of England, have something of a father-son relationship. Mancini is patient and tolerant with Balotelli and happily speaks about how much he likes him. Balotelli, who previously played for tough drill sergeant Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, has repaid Mancini with trust, gratitude and important goals this season when former captain Carlos Tevez let down City so badly.
Mancini said the second of Balotelli's yellow cards Sunday, for his coming-together with Skrtel, was not deserved. Mancini also used an excuse that is true but has only limited shelf life: "Mario is young."
At 21, Balotelli should be entitled to make a young man's mistakes.
It also is true that Balotelli's mistakes often seem to garner a disproportionate amount of attention. Other players make clumsy tackles. Other players are shown yellow and red cards. But they are not all described in newspaper reports as "volatile," ''unhinged," ''mad," or variations on the theme that Balotelli is something of a fruit cake.
Balotelli shares some blame for that. Anyone who allows friends to set off fireworks in a bathroom and start a fire in their rented mansion or who pulls stunts like throwing a dart at a colleague is going to get bad publicity. Deservedly so. But less deserved are the reports that lampoon Balotelli's fashion choices, that question how he spends his money and spare time or which portray him as a clown.
When he scored first in City's 6-1 spanking of United in October, Balotelli lifted up his jersey to reveal the words "Why always me?" written on a T-shirt underneath. It seemed funny at the time but it also is actually a serious question.
Balotelli's fortune is also his misfortune: Soccer made him into a young millionaire but also means he is doing his growing up in public and in the blowtorch glare of the tabloids. How much of what we read about "mad Mario" is actually true? Certainly not all of it. How much is myth? A fair chunk.
When he traveled to the Faeroe Islands with the Italian national team for a Euro 2012 qualifying match in September, Italian soccer journalist and author Luigi Garlando was struck by the fact that Balotelli was the only player to ask him why the islanders grow turf on the roofs off their houses (to provide insulation and protection from storms). Garlondo, who writes for La Gazzetta dello Sport, described Balotelli as "very curious," ''sensible" and "not the guy that came from the tabloids."
With the beauty and purity of his game, Balotelli also has shamed racists in Italy who have showered him with slurs shouted from the stands. They once wrote "You are not a true Italian, you are a black African" on the walls leading to the San Siro in Milan where he used to play. Balotelli says he has learned through experience that it is better to ignore the abuse. But he's also been quoted as saying that he would prefer the Italian media spend more time debating racism in Italy and less time discussing his girlfriends.
Balotelli's first goal for the national team, against Poland this month, was a 35-yard, right-footed work of art that looped over the head of sprawling goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. Molto bello. He celebrated by kissing the Italian flag on his jersey. Italian media noted that Balotelli was the first black Italian to score for the Azzurri and hailed him as a symbol for Italy's multiracial future, with La Gazetta using the phrase the "United Colors of Italy."
"Since he's young and very likely to play in the national side for a long time, the Italian people are going to become accustomed to seeing a black Italian player in the national team," Lilian Thuram, the anti-racism campaigner and retired French star, said in an interview. "Kids will grow up accepting that a black person can be Italian."
So Balotelli is carrying a lot of expectation on those muscular but still young shoulders of his. He is going to make mistakes. He may make a fool of himself at times. But he is also going to score a lot of goals, too.
Mancini knows which of those is more important. And he's got the excuses ready to smooth things over just in case.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester
- Mario Balotelli