Of all the moments in the surreal Manchester City vs. Manchester United game today, there is one that will probably stay rooted in our imaginations for at least a little while: Balotelli’s cheeky question: “Why Always Me?” after his first goal. Like many of the most fascinating moments in football, this one was at once funny and irritating, appropriate and trangressive.
As soon as I saw this, my head began to spin as I tried to imagine Balotelli’s thought process. Going into a game against Manchester United, of course he badly wanted to score. And he had his reasons for thinking he might: if he’s a little arrogant, he has his reasons, and self-confidence no doubt helps him play the way he does. Other players also have t-shirts concocted in preparation for scoring, sometimes with political or social messages: “Sympathize with Gaza,” in one famous case in Egypt, or “Paz in Villa Kennedy,” as Edouardo once requested to those in his violence-torn neighborhood back in Brazil.
But how did Balotelli decide on that particular message? It can be seen, after all, as fairly obnoxious. Having a shirt printed up in preparation of scoring is already a sign of arrogance, of course, but the usual tactic is to balance that out by having a message that isn’t about how awesome you are. Like Messi wishing his mom happy birthday, sweet wonderful son that he is. He got a yellow card too, but the gesture was unimpeachable.
Not Balotelli’s style, though. This was all about Balotelli, performing being Balotelli, at the ultimately moment of Balotelliness. And though probably his teammates didn’t really mind — hopefully they have a sense of humor — it’s a bit of rib towards them. Like, how come I’m always the one who scores, instead of the rest of all y’all? What’s up Kun, Nasri? Don’t have any goals in you? Why Always Me?
That Balotelli might think this, quietly to himself as he hugs his teammates and thanks them for assisting him in scoring, is not that surprising. You can imagine it crossing Rooney’s mind, or Messi’s mind: dude, why am I the awesomest out here, always? But that you would plan, in advance, to publicly make the point is pretty striking. So, too, is the fact that, although he knew you would get a yellow card, he clearly didn’t care. What’s a little card, waved in the air by an impotent referee, compared to the memorable glory of that celebration, of trying to make it just a little bit eternal, rather than just one more goal in the stream of club play? He was, at that moment, just a little Maradonesque — charmingly so.
It’s striking, too, because while in retrospect the showing of the t-shirt can fit firmly into one of the more remarkable drubbings in recent football history, at the time Balotelli could not have known that this would happen. Even if he was convinced that his team would win, I doubt that in his wildest dreams he would have predicted a 6-1 victory. And in fact instead Chicharito and Rooney could well instead have combined to come back and defeat Manchester City, in which case his t-shirt would have ended up seeming a little off. Instead, of course, we were able to watch two groups — the Manchester City fans in the stands of Old Trafford, and the players on their team — express some of the most pugnacious self-satisfaction I’ve seen on display in a long time. The t-shirt was just the beginning of a long, long game at Old Trafford.
There’s a moment in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait when, as we watching him on the field, Zidane tells us that once in his life — and only once — he was playing and suddenly knew, in advance, precisely what would happen: that he would score a goal. He knew how he would do it, and then he did it. Balotelli’s t-shirt somehow makes us think the he had a similar certainty. That he was so well prepared for the moment is both alarming and delightful.
The thing is, there’s something rather universal about the sentiment expressed on the shirt — except that most of the time we (like Charlie Brown) repeat those words not because we’ve just had something wonderful happen to us, but the opposite. You might imagine the same t-shirt worn by some particularly beleaguered goalie: he could pull up his shirt every time some terrible defending, or worse, sent the ball streaming into his net. But the fact Balotelli took perhaps the most profound and universal of human questions “Why Me?” and turned it into a festival of self-celebration, is perhaps what makes this so memorable.
Of all the answers to Balotelli’s question I saw, perhaps the best came from Supriya Nair in Mumbai: “oh, darling. if not you, then whom?” Here’s to the strange certainty that convinced Balotelli that he would print up and wear that t-shirt. Here’s to a gesture that made us pause, for a second, this Sunday: that made us wonder, for a second, about his sanity — and therefore our own.