Not for the first time in his youthful and impetuous career, Mario Balotelli will be watching from a distance as his team tries to make do without him. Certain players have a rare ability to dominate a football match even in their absence. And so AC Milan will be judged over their next three Serie A matches with the shadow of the missing Mario hanging over the pitch. Such is his personality, as a footballer and a man, even when he is not there he somehow manages to be at the heart of it all.
For any coach with a loose cannon in their team, there is always that bothersome deal to be made. If you want to enjoy the good, you have to tolerate the bad. Without the explosive elements of their personality, the brilliance might not sparkle. But can any coach afford to indulge such a player forever? At what point do you have to stop protecting and defending a player for outbursts of temper even if they are -- as in Balotelli's case -- so desperately needed in the team for their talent?
Massimilano Allegri wore a weary expression as he came down hard on Balotelli in the aftermath of his latest suspension for what the Serie A authorities described as "making insulting and intimidating comments towards the referee" over the weekend. It is fair enough to ask for some leeway for a young player, but the AC Milan coach seemed clear that leaning on such an excuse no longer works. Balotelli made his Serie A debut almost six years ago. He has won Serie A and the Premier League , has numerous Champions League appearances for three different clubs, is a mainstay in Italian national team. He has enough experience, Allegri pointed out, that he should have grown out of childish tantrums.
"Mario is 23-years-old, he is no longer a child and to be a champion you have to have a correct behaviour," Allegri said. "I hope for him he benefits from it and realises that he put his team and club in difficulty. There are situations that go beyond the rules of good manners. Balotelli was wrong and that's that. He must grow-up. He is a world-class player and an Italy international so he should set an example."
Video: Balotelli forced to change his behavior
Allegri must sometimes feel like tearing his hair out. His Milan reign has in some way been defined by his attempts to eke the best out of difficult players. He has had to man manage, at various times, the likes of Ronaldino and Robinho, who have both been known to have a relaxed approach to hard work. He had a spell with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, such a sparky character his own way of doing things is legend. Kevin-Prince Boateng arrived with a tearaway reputation. Antoino Cassano, who can be hotheaded and reckless, was another one who came and went under Allegri at Milan. And now, Balotelli. It is quite the list.
Allegri has never given the impression that he found big characters easy to control. Mind you, not many would be able to create eternal sweetness and light with people whose personalities are so strong.
It is also complicated to expect lessons to be learned when the reality of football is that morals go out the window when a team is in need. During Balotelli's spell with Manchester City , Roberto Mancini more or less pronounced his time at the club "finished" when Balotelli invited a red card upon himself as City were faltering in the race for the 2012 Premier League title. A few weeks later, Balotelli was back on the pitch as City won the league, his misdemeanors forgiven.
But there ought to come a point when Balotelli's behavior matures enough to not put his team at a disadvantage. The point that his (multiple) coaches press is how he lets his team down by making himself unavailable. Those consequences are harder to bear than the idea a player lets himself down. "Mario has made a mistake, penalizing the team, club and the fans and he must change this," said Allegri.
At a certain point, such warnings become more than loose words, and in Italy there is an extra pressure to behave because not only is Balotelli making life difficult for his club, there is the prospect of enforced absence from the national team.
Video: Balotelli on Sports Illustrated's cover
The Italian game's governing body, the FIGC, practices a code of ethics which outlaws unsporting conduct to the extent that players who are suspended from their clubs should sit out international games scheduled during any ban. Balotelli has fallen foul of this rule in the past.
Italy's upcoming World Cup qualifiers come just after this current three match ban, but the squad will be announced during the ban, so it remains to be seen whether national coach Cesare Prandelli will feel able to select him.
Prandelli has always been one of Balotelli's staunchest defenders. "I have infinite patience with Balotelli," he once said. "It doesn't take much to be a great player and a very sensitive person. Lads like him should be understood, but at the same time they have to grow up too."