Some French guy, I think it was Francois de La Rochefocauldierrebonmougepieusailleaux, once said something I first came across scribbled in the margins of a library copy of Is Future Given? by renowned chemical physicist Ilya Prigogine. Paraphrasing to the best of my recollection, he said that we ascribe to our friends the attributes and narrative arcs of fictional characters as dictated by the tropes of our familiar genres, writing them into the story of our lives (and theirs) as we recreate our experience through memory. The less we know them, or the longer we go without seeing them, the simpler and more clichéd their stories get. When they deviate from the story we have set for them it upsets us. They’ve broken the nice little doll house we’ve built for them with their messy humanity, the ungrateful little shits. This is how I feel people regard Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, the interrobang of European soccer.
Super Mario doesn’t get the love he deserves, because people tend to regard him too simply. They write him off as “crazy” and reduce one of the only truly interesting personalities in European soccer to mere chaos. Calling Balotelli crazy may be accurate (I don’t know the guy, and I’m not a psychologist) but it’s lazy journalism, lazy writing, just lazy thinking. Whenever I read or see coverage of him I’m reminded of the people who called the London riots “mindless thuggery.” When you call him crazy you make him an Other, inaccessible and unknowable. This streamlined characterization turns him into a dehumanized stock figure for the sake of convenience. It’s a cowardly surrender to your own ignorance. “Why should I bother trying to understand him? He’s crazy.”
I’ve told you all why you’re wrong. Here’s why I’m right. Here’s why I love Mario Balotelli.
He’s a supremely talented player, obviously.
He tries to have fun.
He has a sense of perspective about himself, the decency to admit his flaws, and the humility—yes, Mario Balotelli with the fucking humility—to do so publicly.
But the thing I like most about Super Mario is that he seems to have real empathy for other people.
Let me elaborate. Several of the zanier moments of his life off the field have been incorporated into the madman persona that most journalists have cultivated for him, but to me they’re their own little subplot. Over the past few years he’s made headlines for visiting a women’s prison, getting taken on a tour of the Neapolitan ghetto by local mafia members, giving a homeless man £1,000, going out of his way to help a kid fend off school bullies, and visiting another prison. Media outlets everywhere regarded these happenings with bafflement and the implication that a footballer doing such things should be laughed at. But these aren’t just random episodes in the life of a prospective mental patient, there’s a pattern to them that everyone should be ashamed of for not picking up on.
The thing is, Balotelli is interested in people who are different from him and curious about their lives.
I don’t know him and I’m not a mind reader, but given Western civilization’s history with smart young black men, I get the sneaking suspicion that Super Mario has thought a lot about what his life might have been like if he wasn’t lucky enough to be a world class soccer player. Judging from his public life, I’d also venture to say that he’s probably thought about why he is so lucky when so many others are not. I think that if he read it, he would not just understand but deeply relate to David Foster Wallace’s famous essay Roger Federer as Religious Experience.
The only person who seems to get it besides me (yeah I’m bragging fucking what) is his agent Mino Raiola, a man who knows him personally—go figure. When asked about Balotelli’s visit to the women’s prison and later about his mafia tour, both times Raiola told them the striker acted out of “curiosity.” The coverage either mishandled the lede or simply buried it in knee-jerk moral cowardice. God forbid a rich young athlete possess so much as a shred of genuine curiosity about the lives of people less fortunate than he. And forget about following up on it. No no no, famous soccer players are only allowed to give money to charities for sick kids (with photo-op visits of course), auction some signed merchandise for poor people with cancer, maybe show up at a couple benefits a year and film dumb PSAs about “giving racism the red card.” How dare he actually interact with les miserables, like they were his equals as human beings? Who does he think he is? He’s crazy.
Fuck that. #TeamMario