The first thing I thought when I read that Mario Balotelli had been linked with a move to Barnsley was that it was a little bit too near to where I live!
I don’t want him coming around to my house in Harrogate and setting fireworks off in my kitchen again like he did when we were Manchester City team-mates a few years ago.
I am only joking, though. It looks like Mario is heading for Brazil not Barnsley
in any case, but I’d love to see him back in English football and we are still really good friends.
He keeps inviting me over to Italy, and he is welcome to come and see me any time he likes once the coronavirus pandemic is over.
Mario plays the class clown but there is another side to him that not everyone knows about – it’s just overshadowed by his antics, like everything else is.
He’s not an idiot. He’s intelligent, and what’s often forgotten is that he is also a brilliant footballer too. It’s a real shame his career has not hit the heights it should have done in recent years.
Apologies to Tykes fans but I don’t think he would ever have joined Barnsley anyway, and he is far too good to be in the Championship.
At 30, Mario should be in his absolute prime. Instead he has been a free agent for a few months and is trying to kickstart his career.
The game appeared too easy for him
Mario joined City in 2010 when he had just turned 20 and we hit it off straight away. He was a diamond as a person and he embraced life in Manchester – probably a bit too much.
As a player, he stood out too, even with the kind of striker talent we had at City when he was there. Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko were all top class but Mario’s finishing was up there with the best I’ve ever seen.
He was fast, but he wasn’t lightning quick. Rather than being rapid like Adama Traore, it was more how sharp he was that made him hard to stop, and it was his movement that made him special.
That, along with his first touch, was incredible. He had such great technique for a striker and at times the game appeared too easy for him.
I’d watch him in shooting practice and he would just keep on slotting it into the top corner without really trying.
That might have been part of the problem. He was an excellent all-round player without having to work at his game.
He still gave everything in training, but he might have relied on his natural talent rather than trying to perfect his role in the team – in the way Harry Kane seems to be doing for Spurs for example.
That would be my only criticism of him, because he knew he had it all, and knew how good he was. I just wish he’d kept applying himself.
What you do off the pitch catches up with you
The other thing about Mario is that he has always been a story, because he is such a big character.
I remember his brother Enock telling me once that it didn’t seem to matter whether Mario was playing well or playing badly – he was always in the news.
A lot of that was his own fault, of course. Roberto Mancini signed him for City and clearly loved Mario like we all did, but he told him so many times that he had to stop his antics off the pitch because they would catch up with him eventually.
It looks like that might have happened, but he has had a lot of chances.
I wasn’t particularly sensible off the pitch when I was a young player either – I just didn’t get caught as often as Mario did – but something clicked with me one day when I realised I had to improve my attitude.
I had always thought that if I worked hard in training then what I did outside of football was irrelevant, but that’s not the case.
They go hand in hand, and that’s what Mario couldn’t grasp.
Mario’s mates liked to party and he did too
We used to moan that Mario got special treatment from Mancini, but lots of other people looked out for him when he was in Manchester.
He used to call Patrick Vieira “dad”, and Vincent Kompany took care of him too. I was probably his best friend, and he was like a little brother to me.
It is sometimes hard to make that kind of connection with foreign players, but I could always speak to him on the same level I could with the English lads I was tightest to.
His nickname was Super Mario but the other players used to call us “the brothers” or “the twins”, although I was the much better-looking one, obviously.
I loved him, everything about him. He was brilliant to be around because he had so much energy and it was clear he cared about other people too.
Yes, he made some mistakes, but you have to remember he was a young kid earning a lot of money and living in the public eye. When he was living in the middle of Manchester, he had photographers literally camped outside his flat.
Everything he did was scrutinised and I started to realise that he couldn’t come to my house as much as he was doing, because the paparazzi and everyone else would know where he was and my life would get ruined in the same way too.
When we were together we would just have a laugh, and try to be normal, but he had a lot of hangers-on when he was in Manchester.
They weren’t bad people with bad intentions, but they were the wrong sort to be hanging around with if you are a professional footballer.
They liked to party and they enjoyed the lifestyle that Mario led. He did too.
Even we didn’t know which stories were true
It got to a point when there were so many stories about Mario that you never knew what he had and hadn’t done.
When you asked him, he’d say a lot of them were rubbish, even if some of the ridiculous things did actually happen.
To this day I don’t know for sure if he dressed up as Father Christmas and went around town giving money and presents to strangers. I think he did, although I never saw the costume!
What is definitely true is that he gave £1,000 in cash to a homeless person in Manchester, on at least one occasion. He donated a lot to causes like that.
I’ve heard him deny the one where he apparently picked up a boy who was being bullied and drove him to see his head teacher. Again, I think that happened because I had a couple of people ring me to say Mario had turned up at a school.
That’s Mario. Everything about him is flamboyant, yet he has heart of gold. I wouldn’t want that side of him to change, but maybe something has to.
I’ve stayed in touch with him because he’s my mate, not for any other motive. A lot of people love to be around him because he is Mario, while I see beyond that.
I still text him regularly, and follow his progress. I’d love for him to get his career back on track.
It’s not in doubt how good a player he is, and he has carried on scoring goals whoever he has played for, but at some point he has to understand that talent on its own is not enough.
Micah Richards was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.
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