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Rob Hughes
Tuesday, Aug 26, 2014

Sports, Asian Opinions

Football: Mario can be more than what Reds bargain for

The Straits Times | Rob Hughes | Tuesday, Aug 26, 2014

The hiring of any worker is a calculated gamble. But as the summer transfer window in Europe rattles up £1 billion (S$2.1 billion) in sales, there is one transfer that crops up in window after window.

As I write, Mario Balotelli is yet to pass all his fitness tests to become a Liverpool player.

Fitness in this case means mind, body and soul.

The talent is not in dispute.

If any team can harness the striking qualities of Super Mario, they will surely be a force to be reckoned with - in the EPL and the Champions League.

There is not a heavyweight so big, and yet so explosively talented, as Balotelli.

Why then is he on the market for £16 million, which is less than a quarter of the sum that the Reds received from Barcelona for that other troubled genius, Luis Suarez?

The agreed transfer fee between AC Milan and Liverpool puts Balotelli 17th on the list of most expensive transfers so far this month. Suarez is way out on top.

James Rodriguez to Real Madrid and David Luiz to Paris Saint-Germain are the next biggest buys.

And Liverpool have redistributed most of the Suarez windfall on three players who cost more than Balotelli - Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic and Dejan Lovren.

With each of those, the Anfield staff did their homework and reckoned that they were buying potential that would fit right in with manager Brendan Rodgers' philosophy.

Lallana's injury aside, the coach is happy with his choices and not too despondent about losing the talented but tempestuous Suarez. The bottom line was not the biting and long suspensions that cost Ajax and then Liverpool the services of the Uruguayan for weeks on end. It was the fact that he paid only lip service to the word loyalty while negotiating his way out.

But one massive thing that Suarez gives to any team he plays for, when he is fit and free of imposed idleness, is that he will fight for the ball, for the cause, from first whistle to last.

It is rare, indeed, to see such a talented player with such an attitude to make every minute count.

That is why Barca decided to take a risk on Suarez and pay only a little less than Real Madrid paid for Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.

Suarez is a game changer.

Balotelli is bigger, probably no less talented, but his temperament is untrustworthy.

The British newspapers have speculated that, at £16 million, he is a cut-price diamond on whom the Reds could get their money back if things go wrong.

Maybe so, maybe not.

The talk at the start of this summer window was of Milan wanting £30 million to even consider letting him go.

With no takers at that price, and with time in the transfer window running low, Balotelli nudged the exit door.

He told Sky Italia television on Thursday that Liverpool wanted him, and he had had his last training session at Milanello.

The fee was almost halved. The wages would be discussed but it was leaked that Super Mario was willing to "sacrifice" some of the £160,000 per week he was getting in Milan.

It seems he will have to settle for a basic wage of half that, plus performance-related bonuses of another £40,000 or so per week.

Still, not bad. But not in the top bracket of a Messi, a Ronaldo or it seems any player willing to move out of the English and Spanish TV lenses, such as the score of players who have signed up for PSG - they say for the "project", a cynic might say that money is key. Not even PSG's Qatari paymasters had Balotelli on their radar.

By Friday, the Italian was in Liverpool, taking the first half of medical tests that are prerequisite to any transfer.

He was due for the second batch of tests yesterday.

All the while, Rodgers was coy with reporters.

The Reds' manager had said less than a month ago that he admired Balotelli's skills but he "categorically" ruled out the Italian misfit at Anfield.

On Friday, smiling broadly, Rodgers began his media conference: "I can tell you, categorically, that I can't speak about it until the player has signed."

But he could speak around it.

"If we thought we were bringing in a player we felt was a risk a few years ago," Rodgers mused, "I couldn't have done it because the environment wasn't created.

"What we have here now is a culture of performance - of people working very hard, an infrastructure that's set up to flourish. "And if you come into that and you're not that way or that character, it would be really difficult for you."

To cut to the chase, Rodgers added: "Every player that we assess, character is important. So no player would come here if I felt it wouldn't work.

"People who know me well will tell you that I try develop the player and the person.

"If we feel that someone cares enough, I will give them that opportunity."

Rodgers was once the youth coach at Chelsea under Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho once called Balotelli "unmanageable" when he had him as a teenager at Inter Milan.

Unsurprisingly, Rodgers has not tried to ask Mourinho, or any previous manager, their opinion of the player.

Nor did he read too much into the studio experts or the chorus of old managers suggesting that the temper of Mario was not worth the talent.

The insinuation is that if, at 24, he has not outgrown the moodiness, the apparent short temper or, worse, the inclination to try only when it suits him, Mario is not so super.

While the medics are testing everything that moves in that fantastic frame, you get the impression that Rodgers is playing for time.

He is tempted, obviously, by the carrot of being the one to tame and turn Balotelli into an extraordinary Liverpool player.

But he has to look for flashpoints, for signs that might suggest the signing could contaminate the group harmony that Rodgers preaches.


This article was first published on August 24, 2014.
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