It took nearly 800 minutes, but Mario Balotelli finally scored his first Premier League goal for Liverpool. Appearing in the 74th minute of a then 2-2 game against Tottenham, he notched the game-winner nine minutes later. There was nothing spectacular about the goal itself — a simple tap-in — but for a player who has struggled to find playing time, and on some occasions even the bench, making the most of today’s opportunity must have lifted a camouflaged Bently-sized boulder off of his shoulders.
Of course, because this is soccer, and lives are at stake, and Mario Balotelli is totally incapable of doing anything right with just about anyone paid to talk about soccer, he was still criticized. After the game, NBC’s Phil Neville somehow managed to voice displeasure with Balotelli, saying that his lack of a celebration — repeat: his lack of a celebration — after scoring was a sign that the striker was not fully invested in Liverpool. Never mind the fact that Balo immediately put his arms around Philippe Coutinho as his teammates rushed to congratulate him. A more ridiculous notion will not be utterd on television or anywhere else any time soon.
Yes, Mario Balotelli has been a failure at Liverpool. There is no statistically acrobatic maneuver that will prove otherwise. Equally true is the fact that no matter what he does — or, more importantly, how he does it — Balotelli will be criticized loudly.
There were two strands of reactions to Neville’s comments. The first was, “Neville’s old-school,” but that doesn’t jibe with knocking a player for being humble after winning a game in front of one of the world’s most famous home crowds. The other was a tip-toeing around the idea that there was a racial undertone to Neville’s criticism, which is a bit lazy in this scenario (and I have no problem throwing the race card on the table with a thud louder than that of John Henry’s hammer). Neville’s idea was more idiotic than vicious. Regardless, it was a perfect example of the goal perpetually moving for Mario Balotelli. The rules are always different for him.
The never-ending negative judgement of Balotelli is something that bleeding-heart fans, or crazy people like me who see him as a symbol for some larger idea, are probably more sensitive about than he actually is. Balotelli is likely numb to it at this point. He knows by now he can never win the game that the self-serious parts of soccer media want him to play. He’ll be just fine in the background.