What’s Next for Super Mario

Mario Balotelli should be a villain. In the larger narrative of sports as I understand it, he exhibits all the necessary qualities. Irreverent, unstable, sadistic, unpredictable. Despite all my yearning for a satisfactory story arc there, he resists a concrete identification as such. Fandom, including the punditry, is fickle. I almost never know exactly how Twitter will react to the kind of antics Balotelli is known for. Take the infamous pre-season backheel against the LA Galaxy: I remember a lot of ire directed his way by the announcers of the game, fueled by how worked up Mancini was. I’m sure the reaction in Twitterverse was split (I was in a bar watching the game), but as the saga proceeded over several months, the backheel was praised (along with other incidents) in near unison. Where Balotelli is romanticized, other rebels are demonized. The circumstances aren’t exactly identical (nor can they ever be), but I think comparisons to Tevez, Cassano, Cristiano Ronaldo, Maradona, and other bad boy types aren’t unjust. Laughter is two-faced. We laugh at Maradona because we find most of his decisions ludicrous and damaging; we laugh at Balotelli because we find his decisions refreshing and fascinating.

Performance colors the way we judge jesters like Super Mario; it both blurs and clarifies the line between idiot and savant. Let’s try a naive thought experiment: what if the fire Balotelli started with the fireworks in his bathroom had burned down an apartment building and caused several hundred thousands of dollars of public property damage and harmed his neighbors or their property? My point is not to say we should reevaluate that whole firework episode and our ethical response to it, but rather that the consequences which surround an action irrevocably and retroactively determine whether or not we find something like that funny or terrifying. If Balotelli had been a complete flop in the Premier League this season, the verbiage would change from words like “refreshing,” “marvelous,” “amazed,” and “hilarious” to “petulant,” “child-like,” and several other worse ones. He would be transformed from celebrated anti-hero to pariah, just like that. Which is what makes his success so amazing to me.

Perhaps Balotelli can’t control his insanity. As Brian Phillips pointed out in an article for Grantland, craziness in an athlete is a marketable trait. You can build yourself up to it, make it part of your image. A lot of American athletes (Chad Ochocinco, Ron Artest, Terrell Owens) have made careers off it. When the jester dons his most colorful, spangled uniform, turns on the lights and ups the music, you expect something awesome to happen. By virtue of the anticipation your enjoyment of the performance can be higher. If the jester doesn’t impress, you hate him significantly more than you thought possible before. Not that Balotelli hadn’t acted out before, but I doubt he knew the path his decision to try the backheel against the Galaxy would set him on. After that, the pressure to perform was so much more intense. Compare him to another relatively recent City arrival, James Milner. Milner exemplifies professionalism, never acts out, goes about his business with the efficiency of a robot. Milner has largely (and until recently) underwhelmed since coming to City. Commenters noticed, but spared him disdain. Through the absence of controversy, the pressure of expectations was reduced.

When Balotelli backheeled himself into our hearts, he put himself on a one-way street. Traffic was going one direction, and if he didn’t accelerate his game, he’d be absolutely squashed under the gravity of our expectations. Talent is irresistible (look at someone like Cassano or George Best), but with every passing year, the ceiling for crazy behavior in our athletes gets lower. Which is all to say: enjoy this wave of good feelings while it lasts, Super Mario. Bill Simmons popularized the term “Tyson Zone” to describe the place that athletes like Balotelli often find themselves in. Quoting directly from an article on the subject: “He’s officially a person who, if a friend said, ‘Did you hear that (fill in celebrity’s name) just (fill in the insane behavior: urinated on a police officer, began breeding unicorns, etc.)?’, I would have no problem believing it was true. I think this space is occupied by Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, Courtney Love, and the late, great ODB.” Balotelli is there. By setting off fireworks in his bathroom, Balotelli entered that arena of stupefaction and irrationality.

So far, we have (collectively) endeavored to understand the moral and cultural underpinnings for our treatment of Super Mario. Most articles have reached this point, the present, and stopped, satisfied in tracing the roots of his insanity. The question that is left awkwardly like a dangling modifier is what’s next for our pseudo-villain. I can think of two well trodden paths for the jester/Tyson Zone character. One, he could grow older, mature, become more boring, more or less talented, stop making news. A lot of athletes get into trouble in their youths only to grow older and realize that you have to know how to play the game on and off the field. Cassano seems (emphasis on the seems) to have made this transition, albeit a bit belatedly. Two, he could continue to get stranger, seeming to embrace his weirdness or destructiveness, become more or less talented, and continue to make news like a Paul Gascoigne or Diego Maradona. Whether he goes one of those two routes or any of the other manifold ways, the most crucial factor is whether or not he continues to perform. Right now, he is a media darling, now doubt. But fans have very little tolerance for those trapped in the Tyson Zone.

The appetite for the weirdness inherent to a character like Balotelli is intrinsically linked to what he does on the field. When Tyson was threatening to eat your children, you loved it because you felt like he was actually capable of it. When it became clear that Tyson’s strangeness was all he had left, he went from being one of the most feared sports figures in the world to one of the most mocked. The inherent tragedy of seeing a juggernaut crumble is one of the worst kinds. Tyson, out of context, makes no sense to young sports lovers today. He’s just that strange, sad man with the tigers in The Hangover. I feel the same way about Paul Gascoigne. How sad is it that if you were to say that name to me, the first thing that would pop into my mind is someone getting arrested for drunk driving? Will Super Mario go that route or another? Is he destined to become another Eric Cantona, his insanity treasured like a beloved crazy uncle, or a Mike Tyson, someone you either laugh at or look the other way. The most intriguing question in the Balotelli narrative in my mind is what happens next?

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