x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Life inside Balotelli’s head

Sunday saw the AC Milan striker's phenomenal penalty record come to an end – resulting in a famous strop, writes Ian Hawkey.

AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, with shirt off, is sent off at the end of the Napoli defeat. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP
AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, with shirt off, is sent off at the end of the Napoli defeat. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP

One of the great contradictions within the Mario Balotelli enigma has always been that, faced with the situation which carries just about the most intense, concentrated pressure that the rules of football can apply, he proves himself wondrously calm and efficient.

Give him a penalty to convert, a duel over 12 yards, the eyes of a global television audience on him, the jeers of tens of thousands in his ears, Balotelli turns glacial, Mario the Mature.

Tackle him too hard in practice, or leave him alone with fireworks in his house, the child in him emerges, irrational and often self-destructive.

Balotelli’s brilliance as a penalty-taker, in an era when goalkeepers devote more and more study to raising their chances of stopping them, ranks among the game’s superlatives, like Cristiano Ronaldo’s direct free kicks, or Andrea Pirlo’s long passes.

Except that, until Sunday, Ballotelli’s spot kicks were even better; his penalty record was perfect. Ahead of AC Milan’s match versus Napoli, Balotelli had taken 21 penalties in competitive football in his career, all successful.

The Balotelli penalty has become a phenomenon subjected to near-scientific analysis. Italy media sleuths recently tracked down one Omar Rossetto, a 24-year-old goalkeeper who once saved a Balotelli penalty in a youth-team game, in 2006.

They divined from him that perhaps a clue could be found to his infallible method by studying Balotelli’s eyes, just ahead of his contact with the ball. According to Rossetto, the 16-year-old Balotelli looked one way and shot the other.

Other strikers, envious of Balotelli’s precision, study his technique. When, with Napoli 2-0 up at the San Siro, Balotelli stepped up to the spot to try to put Milan back in the match, the young Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne reckoned he had an urgent hint to give to goalkeeper, Pepe Reina.

He told Reina to stay upright as long as possible. Balotelli heard, and said: “Don’t bother with advice. I’ll score anyway.”

Reina, diving to his right, made an excellent save. Balotelli’s immaculate record was gone.

A little more than 30 minutes later, in spite of scoring from open play close to the final whistle, also gone was the ice-cool temperament Balotelli can always summon for duels over 12 yards, but too often abandons in other circumstances.

A tirade of abuse at the referee after the end of the 2-1 defeat has landed Stroppy Mario with a three-match suspension.