Soccer’s mavericks

Published : Jan 14, 2010 00:00 IST

If you were looking for a contemporary maverick, a player of terrific talent but explosive, unconventional, unexpected behaviour, surely Mario Balotelli would be a classic example. Still only 19 years old, playing, scoring and making spectacular goals for his team, yet no endlessly decadent, not to say defiant, writes Brian Glanville.

Soccer’s mavericks have both enlivened and perplexed the game almost throughout its long professional history. How to define them and ideally to separate them from what the Italians call the fantasisti, those inspired and inspiring players who can make something out of nothing, do the supremely unexpected? For all his acts of indiscipline off the field I’d put the likes of Diego Maradona into such a category rather than call him a maverick. A player who as in the 1990 World Cup was capable of soldiering on through the World Cup tournament in Italy despite suffering constant pain from injury.

If you were looking for a contemporary maverick, a player of terrific talent but explosive, unconventional, unexpected behaviour, surely Mario Balotelli would be a classic example. Still only 19 years old, playing, scoring and making spectacular goals for his team, yet no endlessly decadent, not to say defiant, that he makes even Antonio Cassano, previously and arguably the most celebrated maverick in Italian football, seem almost commonplace.

Cassano emerged from the slums of Bari to become one of the most admired, sought after and exciting forward in Serie-A, even if he didn’t score many goals. But Balotelli simply outstrips him in terms of the unorthodox, not to say the rebellious. And if Cassano emerged from poverty in Bari, then Balotelli’s background makes Casssno’s seem almost orthodox.

There has never been a player’s history quite like it in Italian football.

For Balotelli’s parents are both from Ghana, but emigrated to Sicily and Palermo, where he was born. Two years later, in 1992, they moved North to Brescia, well known as a soccer city that accomplished midfielder for Milan and Italy, Pirlo, comes from there and gave the infant up for Italian adoption. At 15, Mario made his league debut for a third division local club called Lumezzane, and was very quickly spotted and signed by Inter. Having at 16 already been approached by Ghana to play for them; but his sights were set on Italy.

As an 18 year old, he was already playing for the Italian under-21 side, scoring against Greece. And at least he did not quarrel with his under-21 manager Pierluigi Casiraghi, once a Juventus, Chelsea and Italy centre forward, as, before him, Cassano had fallen out with the then under-21 manager, Claudio Gentile. Notorious in his day as a ruthless defender, as Maradona found to his cost and the cost of his shirt in the World Cup of 1986.

What astonished and even horrified is the vicious racism to which Balotelli has been subjected, especially in Turin by the fans of Juventus; whose stadium was suspended for a game last April, after such excesses. Yet the cruel prejudice goes on. Juve were even fined £17,000 after their bigoted fans at a game which didn’t even involve Inter chanted. “If you jump up and down Balotelli dies!” It seems amazing that decades after such prejudice was largely set aside in English football, where black players flourish and frequently play for the national team, such primitive prejudices should exist in a supposedly highly civilised country.

Not least when one remembers how generously and positively my friend Paul Elliott, once an accomplished centre back, was treated all over Italy when some years ago, a black footballer, he was playing for Pisa.

It was only when he returned to Britain to play for Glasgow Celtic — most affectively — that Elliott ran into appalling racist treatment and that was in Scotland. There was one notorious game at Celtic Park against Hearts of Edinburgh, when the taunt of the away fans became so vicious that the Hearts captain actually had the dignity and decency to go over and tell them to stop. But Scotland, let one emphasise, isn’t England and Paul had none of that when he came south to play for Chelsea.

Not that Balotelli, for all his precocious brilliance, has power and his skill, is any kind of angel. His timekeeping is notoriously awry; time and again he will miss deadlines; even, on one occasion, a flight with the under-21s. On the field, he can be provocative, aggressive and insulting to the opposition.

A maverick indeed. So does Marcello Lippi, manager of Italy, take him to the World Cup, when he has plainly given up on the ever undisciplined Cassano? Given the present state of a fading Azzuri team, I cannot think he has much alternative. Whatever his occasional excesses — Balotelli is arguably the most gifted, versatile and incisive attacker of his generation. But to what extent he would be have himself in South Africa, who can say?

One’s mind goes back to one of the most gifted of mavericks, Charlie George. Born and brought up in Islington, deep in Arsenal territory, George became that very rare phenomenon, a Gunners star of local provenance.

Not only a star but an impassioned fan from boyhood. A double rarity. He’d follow the team far and wide as a schoolboys expelled from local Holloway School, an early sign of an explosive, sometimes violent, temperament. When the Gunners signed him it was the attainment of his dream. And as a player, despite the occasional excess, he was formidably versatile. Tall, strong, a fine ball player, a shrewd passer of the ball, powerful in the air, possessed of a fierce right footed shot with one of which he won Arsenal the 1971 Cup Final against Liverpool at Wembley then lay flat on the ground, waiting to be picked up by his delighted team-mates.

But at Highbury, his nemesis was Bertie Mee, autocratic manager, ex-physiotherapist, for whom George and his sometimes rebellious behaviour was anathema. Time and again they’d fall out; George would even swear at him. Just as he ultimately did at Wembley at Don Revie, when the England manager pulled him off early in the second half of what was, absurdly, his only game for England. Reluctantly, he left Arsenal for Derby County where he got on perfectly well with the manager Dave Mackay, a genuine football man, once a star with Spurs and Scotland. And on retiring, what did Charlie do but enlist as a guide at the Arsenal Museum!

You might well put France’s Eric Cantona in this category supremely talented, yet tumultuously violent at times, capable of sublime moments on the field and of moments of sheer brutality. Strongly built, quite fearless, he was known in his time in French football to confront several would be attackers at a time.

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