Sergio Aguero: Manchester City star the antithesis of Balotelli
Sergio Aguero's vocabulary was instructive yesterday, when he got around to discussing the striker whose latest conduct suggests that Umbro will require new supplies of its "Why is it always me?" T-shirts, which initially sold out in one afternoon. "Es un buen pibe," Aguero said of Mario Balotelli. "Un buen pibe..."
There is no direct translation of this term – neither "kid" nor "boy" quite defines a noun which is wrapped up in the mythology of Argentinian football. Pibe describes the kid who has risen up from the dirt pitches to achieve greatness.
It was the Argentinian journalist Borocoto who wrote in El Grafico in 1928 that if the country wanted to erect a statue to its footballing spirit, it should depict "a pibe with a dirty face, a mane of hair rebelling against the comb; with the intelligent, roving, trickster and persuasive eyes and a sparkling gaze. [A] mouth full of small teeth that might be worn down by eating yesterday's bread."
The point of all this was that Aguero, and not Balotelli, is the one who has carried this heroic tradition into the Etihad Stadium. Pibe was attached to him almost as much as "El Kun" – the name of his grandparents' favourite Japanese cartoon character – when he burst on to the scene in Buenos Aires, because he had arrived out of the dust. His childhood, in a villa misera in Quilmes, north of the Argentinian capital, did not resemble the destitution of Carlos Tevez's early years in Fuerta Apache but it was certainly written through with poverty. Balotelli's story, past and present, is a different one.
Whether Aguero was attaching him to the same tradition as himself, or simply employing a piece of slang as a term of endearment, is unclear. But the Italian has not fought his way from destitution and nor is he heading beyond brief moments of high impact to Aguero's realms of greatness.
Psychoanalysis is a treacherous enterprise where Balotelli is concerned, though it is tempting to ask whether Aguero's very different approach to his work is born of knowing of the squalor that lies beyond football's gilded cage. The bread would certainly not have been stale in the lower-middle-class home of Francesco Balotelli, a former warehouse manager, and his wife Silvia, a trained nurse and indefatigable foster-mother, who raised the future Manchester City footballer from the age of four.
The backgrounds may tell us something, even though Lionel Messi, the middle-class boy with neat hair from Rosario, deconstructs the notion that genius is always born of struggle.
The curious aspect of Balotelli's struggle to evolve from boy to man is that he, just like Aguero, was blessed with the stable family life which modern elite clubs like City consider so important to a player's conduct that they detail it in the 50-page dossiers compiled before a player is signed. His mother, the diminutive Silvia, is the one who pops up in Manchester to keep an eye on him. Her presence hardly resembles that of the Aguero clan – of whom seven siblings and the parents will decamp for months at a time, with the player's redoubtable wife, Giannina Maradona, also on hand. But she is the one who can sit him down and make him focus.
The very fact that Aguero, who is a mere two years older than Balotelli, still discusses Balotelli as a "kid" tells us something about the light years between the two, in terms of maturity.
"He's a young lad, he takes care of himself and gets on with his own business, approaches his life as he wants," Aguero said of his team-mate yesterday. "I'm a bit of a family guy; a homebird. I like spending time with my wife and my son. I love my work, do my shift. That's what's important to me, showing my respect for City by doing my work. Everyone has their own path. But those of us who are really close to Mario know that off the field he's a really good lad. Like a lot of players he has his own idiosyncrasies here and there. You know him as a player – what you see on the field. But I know he's a lovely lad."
Logic suggests that Aguero might yearn for a bit of space at times – a night at the local with half a lemonade and the phone switched off – because to go with that clan there are also the duties attached to being the son-in-law of God. On Sunday morning, Diego Maradona was in touch, checking City's kick-off time, and there was a congratulatory text expected when the player got home. "Normally before and after a game he's always in touch," Aguero said.
This is a long way from the chaotic life of Balotelli, though the one upside of a juvenile outlook is that there is no time to fret about penalties – and the Italian certainly never misses. "I did check with him first and said, 'I'll take it – are you sure you want it?'" Aguero said of Balotelli's "pause" kick which sealed Sunday's 3-2 win against Tottenham. "He said, 'Yeah, I'm 100 per cent sure', so it was fine for him to take it."
James Milner yesterday also spoke of Balotelli's welcome ability to deflect attention. "You can always rely on Mario to set some fireworks off to get the headlines," said midfielder Milner. "The rest of us can just quietly keep going about our business." Looking to tomorrow night's Carling Cup semi-final second leg against Liverpool, Aguero revealed a childhood hero from that club whose stability foretold his own.
"I was not so much a fan but one of the players who was my idol when I was a lad was Michael Owen," he said. "He was quite small and had an eye for goal, just like me. When Liverpool were winning trophies, I was looking out for them because Owen was doing well. It's ever since he scored against Argentina in '98. I cursed him pretty badly for scoring that. But getting that goal didn't stop me from admiring him. He's a top player and a goal against Argentina doesn't stop me thinking that."
Will Balotelli ever catch some of the constancy of Aguero, el pibe? The view from Italy is a resounding "No."
Yesterday, Corriere della Sera reported: "Il solito Balotelli: gol e polemiche." "The usual Balotelli – goals and controversy".
Fixtures: next five
City's next five fixtures
Everton (a) 31 January
Fulham (h) 4 February
Aston Villa (a) 12 February
Blackburn (h) 25 February
Bolton (a) 3 March
United's next five fixtures
Stoke (h) 31 January
Chelsea (a) 5 February
Liverpool (h) 11 February
Norwich (a) 26 February
Tottenham (a) 4 March