Even by local standards it’s a ludicrously wet, windy and grey morning in Manchester. Car radios are alive with the news that Britain has just slumped into a double dip recession. But wherever you go, whether you’re speaking to a staunch red, a season-ticket-holding blue or someone largely ambivalent about football, the mere mention of one man has the power to brighten any black mood. Who is it? Mario Balotelli, of course.
“Even my mum likes Balotelli,” grins James Terry, one of three committed fans braving the bucketing rain outside Manchester City’s Carrington training complex for an autograph. “He’s got the attitude, the big ego, the ability. It’s like he lives our life but with all that money.”
“He reminds me of Cantona,” chips in equally sodden City supporter Graham Thomson. “I was there when he turned up to midnight mass at that church in Chorlton, you know? The donation he gave has been reported as everything from £200 to £1,000.”
This well-worn (and reportedly fictitious) tale is just one of many the 21-year-old Italian has left in his wake since arriving in Manchester the summer before last. They’ve covered everything from personally taking on the tormentors of bullied schoolchildren to charitably paying the library fines of Manchester’s students to blithely strolling into imposing Wythenshawe pubs to treat customers to a drink. And everyone’s got one.
“There was a period when the phone was ringing every day with a new Balotelli story,” laughs Radio 5 Live presenter Tony Livesey. “‘He’s just walked into Argos and bought everything on page 972 and given it to someone outside.’ Right, OK. ‘Balotelli’s dressed as Santa Claus and he’s just run through Piccadilly Gardens picking every third tramp and making him a millionaire.’ In the end you didn’t know what to believe.”
Unsurprisingly, Man City have been quick to refute these outlandish apocryphal tales. Plus, in a Football Focus chat with a visibly starstruck Noel Gallagher — his only high-profile press engagement since his signing — Balotelli dismissed the majority of these folk stories as false. But where do they come from? And why, as other reputations have been tarnished by scandals, swaggering displays of wealth and super injunctions, is this rock’n’roll sportsman stubbornly popular?
(Man City's training facility. Note amusing nod to the club's owners)
When he arrived at Manchester City from Internazionale in August 2010, having once wandered into a women’s prison in Brescia because he was curious, there were clues that Balotelli was what you’d charitably call ‘an individual’. We discover some more ‘clues’ later that day when, after a trip to Balotelli’s favourite Italian restaurant San Carlo (“He was here just an hour ago,” says a cheerful-if-wary waitress), we find ourselves outside the Etihad Stadium harvesting more (probable) tall tales. “I heard he was giving out £20 notes at the soup kitchen in Manchester,” says fan Rob Smilley. “I did a job for a bloke who was in the petrol station when he came in and paid for everybody’s petrol,” offers fellow supporter Craig Tracey, leaning against a rail of ‘Why always me?’ T-shirts. “That one is definitely true.”
You get the feeling that the stories, and the vision of Balotelli wandering Zelig-like through Mancunians’ existences, have taken on a life of their own. As another fan, Hitesh Chandarana, puts it when we delicately tell him a lot of these tabloid escapades have been publicly discredited: “It doesn’t matter. We’d all like to have a wad of twenties to dish out, so the fact that these wacky stories are out there makes them true in some eyes.”
It’s a peculiar brand of fan wish-fulfilment. However, Livesey thinks there are crumbs of truth powering most of the Chinese whispers. “I think he has probably given lots of money to Big Issue sellers, he’s probably seen a street entertainer and bunged him 50 quid or whatever and I’m sure he’s set other fireworks off where he shouldn’t have done. Football fans love to romanticise things, and out of that the myth grows. There was a period when people were going out looking for Balotelli because the word was that he could change your life. He was plucking orphans off the street and healing the sick.”
This idea of Balotelli as a wad-waving philanthropist is a continuing theme throughout the day. His gargantuan watch, expertly-groomed mohican and low-slung designer jeans might mark him out as an Identi-Kit professional footballer, but this perceived fondness for helping others is what people have leapt on.
Yes, there have been rumoured strip club visits, alleged curfew breaks and grubby kiss-and-tells, but there’s a streak of positivity running through the bulk of the anecdotes. “It’s kind of that Robin Hood thing,” reasons Livesey. “The amount footballers are paid is out of the reach of most, so they look at him and think, ‘That is how I would behave.’ They say, ‘Go on! Throw your car keys to the lad at McDonald’s.’ There are people who will swear blind that happened, that he rode home on some kid’s bike after giving him his people carrier. The city has revelled in it. But when he’s going around trying to break people’s legs, it ceases to be a joke. ”
(Jimi's moving tribute to Mario)
LOCKED IN THE CUPBOARD
Livesey’s allusion to Balotelli’s calamitous red card and performance during the April defeat at Arsenal hints at a wider tipping point for him. His off-pitch antics, whether true or imagined, have hurled his future at City into doubt. There’s been talk of wasted talent and self-destructive cult heroes of old. Even the dreaded G-word has been invoked. “I don’t think there’s much difference between him and Gazza,” suggests Livesey. “I met Paul Gascoigne a few times and, in the nicest possible way, there’s something childlike about both of them.” In Balotelli’s defence, he is still relatively young. And, the odd silly hat aside, he’s no novelty breast-wearing prankster.
You get the feeling that, whether he’s wandering unannounced into an Inter press conference (in March) or shrugging the ball into the net with his shoulder (in December), he doesn’t realise how captivatingly odd he’s being. Needless to say, forces at the Etihad have been quick to toss a metaphorical blanket over the situation. “City haven’t propagated the myths,” agrees Livesey. “They’ve never put him up for interview and I think Mancini would be happy if he could just lock him in a cupboard between games.”
Flash back to earlier that morning and it’s this guarded attitude that has us grappling with a windblown umbrella for a glimpse of Balotelli leaving training. A menacing black supercar speeds by us. “Nasri,” says Terry, identifying the driver. “He never stops.” Five minutes later, a Fiat stuffed with youth players trundles through the gates. Then, just as we’re wondering if we’ve missed him, a slate-grey Bentley Continental splashes past with a familiar diamond-adorned figure at the wheel and before we know it we’re running after the car. He dutifully lowers the window and starts scribbling on shirts. “Mario, can we ask you one question?” we blurt. “What, what?” he says impatiently. Then, as a thousand queries rattle through our head (“Is it true about the Santa costume? Have you finally mastered the baffling intricacies of the training bib? Why always you?”) our chance is gone. He spots ShortList’s voice recorder, says “No”, raises his window and screeches off.
“You could’ve waited for me to get my shirt signed before you asked your question,” splutters Thomson, but he can’t help but laugh. It may not have involved banknotes or fireworks, but we’ve all had our own (very) brief encounter with the Premier League’s most unconventional star. Despite the unrelenting downpour, it’s reason enough to smile.