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Jul 25, 2011

Mario makes football fun

It took just a few seconds for Mario Balotelli's latest bizarre act to go viral. He swiftly trended on Twitter as links to the now-famous video clip peppered timelines across the globe. I duly clicked, watched, chortled. Then Tweeted on it myself. But when the dust had settled, though, there appeared to be quite the animosity towards the Manchester City striker for his actions. Why?

Mario Balotelli's backheel.

In a friendly match against LA Galaxy on Sunday, Balotelli, signed from Inter Milan for £24 million last summer, found himself clean through on goal, his side leading 1-0 after he had scored from the penalty spot. But, instead of putting his laces through the chance, he opted for an audacious pirouette, before backheeling the ball a few yards wide of the target. His team-mate, Edin Dzeko, who lurked just to his right, threw his arms up in disgust; City boss Roberto Mancini, meanwhile, got angry.

A bronzed Mancini pointed immediately in Balotelli's direction before waving a left hand at substitute James Milner. Minutes later, Balotelli trudged off, Milner replacing him. A verbal exchange then took place between Mancini and his Italian compatriot, with the latter seemingly indicating that he thought he was offside, hence the languid skill. Then, petulantly, he turned his back on his coach, strutting towards the bench whilst uttering under his breath. Mancini half-heartedly stalked him. A textbook throwing of a bottle then followed by Balotelli.

I am not defending 20-year-old Balotelli's reaction, he behaved like a brat and such a strop sends a poor message to the children watching. But doesn't Mancini, who worked with the attacker at Inter, know Balotelli well enough to anticipate he would have responded in such a way to being hooked? It may have got Mancini's goat, but why not wait until the interval to replace him, therefore quelling the media furore that would inevitably follow? Instead of talking about Uruguay's Copa America final win - a record-breaking 15th South American title - the footballing masses were chatting all things 'Super Mario' on Sunday evening. Then, of course, Mancini's press conference was dominated by it.

Speaking after the game, which City eventually won 7-6 on penalties following a 1-1 draw in normal time, Mancini said: "I hope this is a lesson for him. In football you always need to be professional, always serious and in this moment he wasn't professional. If you are serious, you can play 90 minutes. If not, you can come and sit by me on the bench. Mario is young, I want to help him and that is the end of it. To take him off after 30 minutes is enough punishment. It won't have been easy for him but it has to be a lesson."

But serious is dull. Let us remember that City were criticised last season for at times being uninspiring. Ironing out this type of expression is not beneficial to the game, nor the supporter. Football needs its characters, and Balotelli is a mighty one. Petulance should be rid from football, but the dare to be daring must stay. The innovators, the characters, the expressive - they make football what it is: fun.

Imagine if the effort had gone in, then Mancini would have been in quite the pickle. One chap Tweeted: "It is certainly an insult that he tried it. Very disgraceful and distasteful. Good for Mancini taking him out." This I can't comprehend, yet it seems the majority view.

Press Pass discusses Mario Balotelli.

During a period when the lead story is usually some quotes from a player's agent telling us all the top clubs in the world want him, Balotelli's act was a comforting reminder of the sport's ability to entertain.

But the lasting concern from the incident is the message that hauling off of a player who attempted something different sends to youngsters. Punishment for experimentation produces a fear of failure. This has been England's problem for goodness knows how many years. If this was globally engrained we wouldn't have the Blanco 'bunny hop', Johan Cruyff's copyrighted turn or that daft seal dribble Kerlon does.

Ultimately, we should make consider whether his spin really was "disgraceful" or "insulting". He didn't flick a V-sign at the crowd, or spit in an opponent's face. He just did something a little bit different. And that is what Mario Balotelli is all about.

• Follow me on Twitter @JamesDallESPN

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