Mario Balotelli set his house on fire when he and four friends got bored (one assumes) on Friday night and started throwing fireworks out of a bathroom window. Go ahead and laugh. Goodness knows I did too when I read the headlines.
Balotelli's antics are harmless enough on the football pitch, when one can project onto him the personality of a man rebelling against the boredom and stodginess of the Premier League. He is, if you will, a footballing antihero - a man who realises everything is a farce and acts accordingly. On the surface, this is just another example of Mario being Mario, and the reaction from the public (and from some members of the media) has been predictably amused.
The story gets decidedly less funny as one digs deeper, however. Two fire crews were dispatched to contain the blaze, which was described as a substantial fire that left the structure badly damaged. Police had to stop the Manchester City striker from running back inside to retrieve his possessions, apparently while the house was on fire (although the timing is a little muddled at present).
Obviously, nobody can say what Balotelli was thinking at the time, but it's probably reasonable to say that this shows a fairly troubling disregard for the safety of himself and his friends as well as a similar disregard for his property. No 21-year-old should be condemned for playing with fireworks, of course, but generally pyromaniac youngsters are careful not to set their own bathrooms on fire, especially while they're in them.
At what point do things go from entertaining to troubling? Clearly, a backheel miss one on one during an exhibition game is entirely harmless, funny and made even better by the outrage it promoted. His outspoken interviews, allergy to grass and the now-infamous bib incident were all endearing without causing any real harm. Then we get to mishaps that could cause actual someone to get hurt - this was one of them, obviously - and that's where you almost have to start worrying whether he might actually need help.
Worse, the reaction to the story shows a completely callous disregard for the safety of the fire crews who were called in to contain the blaze. The simple fact of the matter is that those firefighters were forced to put their lives on the line because a millionaire footballer was playing around with fireworks*. That nobody was hurt shouldn't have any bearing on our opinion of Balotelli's actions, but I suspect the reaction to this story would have been very different had someone been killed in the fire.
*Yes, firefighters sign up for the job and know the dangers. That doesn't mean we have a right to kill them off if we're bored.
Balotelli can be tremendous entertainment, of course - there's no denying that, and I'd love to see him take his unique brand of fieriness to new and hilarious heights on the football pitch. But what happened on Friday night wasn't funny. Our perception of Mario Balotelli, human being appears to be being badly warped by the dream of Mario Balotelli, footballing antihero.
This isn't about respect for the game anymore. We know that the game is a joke, a farce, 22 men kicking the ball around as clubs turn misguided loyalties into cash. Balotelli should disrespect the game all he wants - goodness knows it deserves it. But if he could draw the line there rather than also, say, endangering himself and others, that would be super.