The much publicised and apparently award winning documentary on the Crazy Gang screened on BT Sport earlier this year highlighted some noticeable similarities between John Fashanu, one of the stars of the Wimbledon team of the 1980’s and Liverpool’s Italian forward Mario Balotelli. This article will try to explain some of the reasons behind this observation.
John Fashanu was born in Kensington, England in September 1962 to a Guyanese mother and Nigerian father. Following his parents’ separation, John and his elder brother Justin were sent to Barnardo’s children’s home. Aged five the brothers were adopted by Alf and Betty Jackson and raised in the couple’s family home in Attleborough. In the 1960’s Norfolk, as it is today, wasn’t as diverse as the capital, yet despite this the brothers didn’t encounter any racism in their early years in East Anglia.
28 years after Fashanu’s birth, a Ghanaian couple’s first son was born in Palermo, Italy. They named him Mario Barwuah. The family moved from Sicily to Brescia, in the north of the country, when Mario was two years old. The following year he was placed in care, on the authority’s suggestion, and fostered by Silvia and Francesco Balotelli, a middle class family. Mario found it hard growing up in a predominantly white country where some find it hard to accept other ethnicities, however he was accepted by his new family and has a strong relationship with his adopted parents.
John Fashanu started his career at Norwich City, and following spells at Lincoln City and Millwall, joined Wimbledon for a then club record fee of £125,000. As a player Fashanu was well known for his physical attributes, which would fit in well with Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett’s preferred style of play. Before embarking on a professional football career, the 6’ 2” forward had been a keen amateur boxer. This aggressive side to his character was highlighted in the BT Sport documentary, with himself and Vinnie Jones recounting a story of a fight at the Don’s training ground with a new team-mate. The validity of this incident may be questioned as other team-mates suggest the story of the fight may have been retold over-dramatically. However it does emphasise the striker’s aggressive streak. This side to him also came out on the pitch; a brutal clash with Spurs’ Gary Mabutt left the defender with broken skull and eye socket. In Fashanu’s own words,
There were times when we were 200 per cent physical. We believed we were warlords because at three o’clock on a Saturday, it was war.
Mario Balotelli made a name for himself in Italy with Inter Milan before being described as “unmanageable” by then Nerazzurri boss José Mourinho, and departed his homeland in the summer of 2010 to follow former manager Roberto Mancini to Manchester City. During their time together the pair had a tempestuous relationship, with Mancini saying in an interview;
Every day I fight against Mario and sometimes I would like to give him a punch.
Balotelli’s interests outside football include martial arts, something he informed reporters in response to his manager’s quote, ‘He couldn’t. I do Thai kick-boxing.’ Despite this, they were subsequently seen confronting one another on the club’s training ground. This wasn’t the first time Balotelli had been involved in confrontations, having been spotted scrapping on separate occasions with then team-mates Nigel de Jong, Micah Richards, Kolo Touré and Jérôme Boateng.
While both players can prove to be no shrinking violets with a tendency to quickly use violence, they could also both be described as characters with possible delusions of grandeur. Fashanu, speaking in the 3rd person about himself, insinuated that he was the leader of the dressing room,
Fash was a physical bastard and you would either have to adapt or dissolve as a person. The players ran the club and if you were a wise manager, you would work with us, not against us.
Following the programme being broadcast Dave Bassett, manager of the Crazy Gang at the time ridiculed his suggestions, ‘Fash has disrespected the legend of the club and the legacy has been tarnished because of his contribution to the programme.’ Others involved concurred, with goalkeeper Dave Beasant saying he was disappointed the forward had overstated some of the stories for dramatic effect.
One of Balotelli’s most infamous moments on the pitch came during Manchester City’s derby victory at Old Trafford in 2011. After scoring, the Italian revealed a T-Shirt with the message “Why Always Me?”. This followed reports in the media on the morning of the game that Balotelli had let off fireworks in the bathroom of his rented mansion. Instead of the focus being on the comprehensive nature of the result, the column inches were shared with the antics of the controversial forward.
As the documentary confirmed, John Fashanu is the type of person who enjoys believing they are the centre of attention. As his former manager Dave Bassett says;
(John) has embellished stories and played up to the camera. He should have been honest and shown respect to those who played alongside him and to those who achieved so much before him. It is a shame and players from that great Wimbledon team are very disappointed in him, because he has attempted to glamorise something that was already very special.
An example of this is Fashanu describing lining up before Wimbledon’s FA Cup final match against Liverpool in 1988, ‘John Barnes is close friend and I said things to him in that tunnel that only a black man could say to another black man’, however as the cameras focus on the players there is no evidence of this – and Barnes denies any comments being made to him.
After Fashanu’s football career ended he stayed in the public eye, first by presenting the original series of the game show Gladiators, before appearing in I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here in 2003. Now a businessman, he was also the host of ‘Deal or No Deal’ in Nigeria.
Following Balotelli’s arrival in England, the media interest has built up. Many stories followed with tales of run-ins with police; when stopped he was found to be carrying £5,000 in cash and when asked by police why, he reportedly replied: “Because I am rich”, schoolchildren; apparently when a young autograph hunter said he was the victim of bullying, Balotelli drove to the school to intervene, a women’s prison; Balotelli once drove with his brother, Enoch, unauthorised into a detention centre in Brescia, Italy before being stopped at the gates, and training bibs; in the warm up before a Europa League game against Dynamo Kiev at the Etihad in 2011, the then Manchester City striker struggled to put on his kit and the footage subsequently went viral.
In conclusion there are a number of similarities in their upbringing and character. However there are also a number of differences between the two. Despite both regularly being the centre of attention, it appears that while the Italian may be involved in silly incidents both on and off the football pitch, it is because he hasn’t thought through the consequence of his actions, while Fashanu is keener on courting controversy and attention even if what is claimed isn’t true; as has been proven by others’ recounts of past events. This trait may be due to the fact that when he was growing up, trying to make a profession from football, he was also in the shadow of his older and more talented brother Justin.
When Justin came out as gay in an interview with The Sun newspaper, John disowned his brother, telling The Voice that Justin was “an outcast” and shockingly saying in New Nation newspaper,
I’ve washed my hands of him. I’ve helped him so much in the past financially, emotionally and spiritually. I’ve got eight brothers and sisters and Justin is old enough now to stand on his own two feet. He’s a big man.
Although expressing remorse after Justin took his own life in 1998, Fashanu later told the BBC he believed his brother “wasn’t really gay”, but was merely “seeking attention”. In 2013 Amal Fashanu, John’s daughter and Justin’s niece presented a BBC documentary, “Britain’s Gay Footballers”.
In terms of achievements on the football field, Balotelli and Fashanu cannot be compared. Despite only being 24 years old, Balotelli’s list of honours include three Serie A titles and the Champions League with Inter, a Premier League and FA Cup with Manchester City, and a European Championships runners up medal with Italy, for whom he has scored 13 goals from 33 appearances. In contrast, Wimbledon’s famous FA Cup triumph was Fashanu’s only major honour in a 17 year playing career and he only managed to make two appearances for England without scoring.