The importance of being liked

One of the best questions to ask children (especially if you want them to talk amongst themselves and leave you alone for a while) is this: ‘if you could have one super-power for the day, what would it be?‘  These discussions can go on for hours.  Would I choose a cloak of invisibility? the ability to fly? an ability (inspired by the advert) that means that everything I touch turns into skittles (a sort of candy-based King Midas)?  All of these would no doubt prove useful, but bringing a sense of adult realism to the proceedings, I think that the ability to make people like you is probably the most important power once can possess.  I don’t mean the ability to make a small section of your friends like you because you always buy the first round, I mean a like-ability so strong that makes even people you have never met break out into a smile at the mere mention of your name. 

It’s a universal rule of sport that you like the players that play for your team and you dislike virtually everyone else involved with that sport.  When players are purchased by your team, you immediately like them and when players are sold from your team, they are disliked as soon as the pen signs the new contract.  Most of us would admit to having a soft-spot for players who aren’t currently playing for our teams, but they tend to be in no direct competition with the players we idolise.  I don’t supposed that Lionel Messi is likely to be running at the Palace back four any time soon.

The one player who seems to buck the trend is Mario Balotelli, the Manchester City striker.  This man seems to inspire love and admiration from everyone.  There are numerous (mostly apocryphal) stories about him all over the internet, and most seem to exist only to promote him as a sort of cross between black-and-white slapstick comedian Norman Wisdom and philanthropic walnut Mother Theresa.  He seems to spend his time paying library fines for all and sundry, buying petrol for strangers or going mental in Argos, purchasing an scaletrix set when he should have been buying an ironing board for his Mum.  People are keen to believe these stories too; Balotelli is held up as the anti-footballer; he’s what we would be like if we played in the Premiership.  Not for us the tedium of rhetorial interviews hung heavy with the dissemination of carefully media-trained non-information.  Not for us the cliched footballer’s night out on Cristal champagne in celebrity-studded London clubs.  We understand far more the wish to set off fireworks with our mates in the kitchen, or late-night visits to the flesh-clubs of the North East, or late-night curries the day before a big game.  We understand the passion of the fans and the need for a passionate player to inspire them.

But isn’t Balotelli also the epitome of everything we hate about modern day footballers?  He’s over-paid, brattish, surly, under-performing, involved in continual training-ground bust-ups and is totally un-apologetic for his actions.  Joey Barton must be wondering why he ends up the vilified hate-figure, and yet Balotelli is clutched to the breast of the Nation like a favorite comfort blanket.  

Part of the country’s love for Balotelli is because we feel sorry for him, which is all rather patronising and I doubt he could care less.  He is Ghanain by birth and was raised from a young age by his adopted parents in Italy.  He speaks lovingly about his Italian mother and father, with an endearing child-like innocence.  He has been the victim of racist abuse and chanting in his adopted country and perhaps we need to show Balotelli the love that the Italians have been unwilling to.  Part of the country’s love is linked to the fact that he is genuinely entertaining on the pitch; he is super-talented, but is as likely to be subbed at half-time having shown little interest or effort as he is to score the goal that wins the game.

But perhaps the main reason that we love Balotelli is that we can relate to him.  We have a national aversion to perfect sportsmen like Michael Schumacher or Pete Sampras.  These people are born winners, racking up trophies with a single-mindedness that we cannot comprehend.  When we accuse them of being devoid of personality, it is simply because there is nothing in their life that is anything like our own.  We accuse them of being automatons, with their drive for excellence being mistaken for a lack of humour, grace and above all, fallibility.  This is why our sporting heroes always tend to be the most fallible (think George Best or Shane Warne).  We can’t connect with Best or Warne’s genius on the pitch, but we can with their drinking bouts or saucy texting.  Balotelli is the link between us and the perfect sportsmen and women; he allows us to connect with these higher forms of athletic life. He’s not so very different from us, and therefore we’re not so very different from Mike and Pete after all.  

We may have no idea what it feels like to play on Centre Court at Wimbledon, but we’d all rather play with toy cars than do the ironing, wouldn’t we?