Wy always him? It’s a question that many people are still striving to find an answer to; why controversy always appears to follow Mario Balotelli wherever he goes. The Italian has been given a number of opportunities at some of the world’s biggest clubs to showcase his talents, though for one reason or another we’ve only been treated to flashes of his brilliance rather than sustained periods of productivity. But as last chance saloons go, Balotelli may have just rocked up at his final gig in the form of Ligue 1 side OGC Nice.
Perhaps the current plight of Balotelli is best exemplified by Liverpool’s willingness to allow a former Inter, Manchester City and Milan forward – who has only just turned 26 – a free route out of Anfield, writing off £16 million in the process. When every other avenue had been blocked off in their search for a Luis Suárez replacement, Mario represented the wild roulette gamble. The club were hoping to hit red but instead the roulette ball hit black.
The Balotelli they hoped for and the Balotelli they were met with were not one of the same. You only have to hark back to Italy’s Euro 2012 semi-final victory over Germany to recollect just how devastating Balotelli can be. That day, the forward resembled his best version, terrorising the German defence with a performance that was rounded off with two goals.
It isn’t inconceivable to suggest that an Italian side minus Balotelli that day may not have seen off Joachim Löw’s side. His talent has never been in question, only his attitude. But when push comes to shove, hard work will always beat talent when talent refuses to work hard.
What usually separates the great from the good is their sheer ruthlessness to replicate time and time again. You ask many a manager what frustrates them most and high on their list will likely be the hugely talented footballer’s they’ve supervised, who for one reason or another fail to fulfil their promise.
Players are often defined on moments throughout their career, and Balotelli has contributed to two moments in the histories of City and Inter that are easy to neglect. Let’s not forget that it was Balo who was willing to take the initiative, maintaining his equilibrium to exchange passes with Sergio Agüero, as the Argentine scored that goal against Queens Park Rangers which secured the Eastlands club their first league title for 44 years back in 2012.
During the same year, while undertaking an interview with CNN, José Mourinho recollected a story involving the Italian during Inter’s 2009-10 Champions League campaign: “I remember one time when we went to play Kazan in the Champions League. In that match I had all my strikers injured. No Diego Milito, no Samuel Eto’o, I was really in trouble and Mario was the only one.
“Mario got a yellow card in the 42nd minute, so when I got to the dressing room at half-time I spend about 14 minutes of the 15 available speaking only to Mario.
“I said to him: ‘Mario, I cannot change you, I have no strikers on the bench, so don’t touch anybody and play only with the ball. If we lose the ball no reaction. If someone provokes you, no reaction, if the referee makes a mistake, no reaction. The 46th minute – red card!”
A 46th-minute dismissal certainly gives the story it’s comical ending that perhaps best sums up the madness of Balotelli, though his sending off actually took place in the 60th minute.
But later in the campaign, the Nerazzurri would once again encounter the Russian side in their final Group F match, with both teams level on points and with the victor set to join group winners Barcelona in the last-16, relegating the loser to the Europa League.
If there was ever a time that Mourinho needed Balotelli to shine, it was now, and the forward wouldn’t disappoint, producing a neat flick into the path of Samuel Eto’o for the Cameroonian to open the scoring, before putting the victory beyond doubt with a brilliant long-range free-kick that thrashed the roof of the net. Balotelli had produced when his team and manager needed it most.
Fast-forward to the following May and Inter would be celebrating their first European Cup for 45 years en route to them becoming the first Italian club to secure a historic Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League treble. The importance of that cameo will not have been lost on Mourinho to this day.
Both of these moments will long live in the memory of either club, moments that Balotelli contributed to, even if that contribution was minute and rare. But when you think of the greats, their moments of brilliance tend to be the produced on a regular occurrence rather than sporadically, with the constant replication leading to the filling of one’s memory bank with an assortment of moments. I’m sure there are plenty who will have many thoughts when it comes to Balotelli; the problem is that it’s not all good.
Having experienced City, Milan, Inter and Liverpool, the modesty of Nice will likely demand a period of adjustment for a man who would’ve become acclimatised to the nightlife and temptations in all three cities. The footballer’s life was something that Hatem Ben Arfa struggled with at one point. In fact, you could say that the career of the Frenchman shares parallels with that of Balotelli’s – an immensely talented player who for one reason or another struggles to produce consistent performances.
When the end was nigh at Newcastle, Ben Arfa attempted to find solace at Nice, and while many predicted that it would be the beginning of the end of his career, it actually transpired to be his rebirth.
And that must surely be the aim for Balotelli during his stay in southern France, undergoing his rehabilitation and thus securing his second coming. Arsène Wenger often mentions the importance for a talented player to marry potential with delivery. Apply that notion to Balotelli and you have to suspect that he’s in serious danger of being jilted at the altar.
Nice gave Ben Arfa the platform to produce his most productive season to date, scoring 17 goals in a fruitful campaign that would see Les Aiglons finish a commendable fourth, securing the mercurial star his reincarnation at Paris Saint-Germain this season. It is certainly plausible that super agent (we can call him that after his summer work) Mino Raiola would’ve made Balotelli aware of how Nice not only worked out for Ben Arfa, but how it can subsequently benefit him.
Having often been nicknamed Super Mario, it’s high time that Balotelli attempted to live up to his name. As a society, we often tend to react negatively to arrogance, waiting for the first opportunity to revel in the misfortune of an individual we deem to be arrogant. But while individuals such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimović may be suspected of displaying this kind of behaviour, their ability to harness that arrogance in the right manner results in it being overlooked and accepted. Balotelli must use his latest opportunity to attempt to acquire the right remedy that will allow him to unearth his fading potential on a consistent basis before it really is too late.
The forward has worked with two of the most astute coaches in football – Roberto Mancini and the aforementioned Mourinho – and yet neither could put Balotelli on the path to righteousness. Why always him? The time has come for the man himself to attempt to answer his own question. If he can do so, then there’s every chance that Nice can turn into the greatest of safe havens for Super Mario.
By Geoffrey Dore. Follow @geo_dore