A Nice Resurrection

My inspiration for this article stems from a Balotelli 79 th -minute winner against Stade Rennais. Teammate Alessandre Plea picked up the ball in the midfield, skipped past a defender, and rolled the ball down the right side ahead of Balotelli’s path. Balotelli ran onto it with poise, and the ball glided elegantly into his stride. He approached the ball with an air of calmness perfectly associated with the Italian, and struck it with thunderous power, beating Rennais’ Koubek at his near post, giving him absolutely no chance at getting a hand to it. Perhaps the ideal reaction to this game winner is “oh, what could have been.”

Mario Balotelli is one of the most engrossing personas in world football. Flashy haircuts, a heated temper, and a knack for questionable decisions have all contributed to the Italian’s eclectic character. A play that best epitomizes the unpredictable nature of his career came in a 2011 friendly against LA Galaxy. Threaded through by a David Silva pass, Balotelli was 1v1 with the goalkeeper, then casually proceeded to spin around and attempt to backheel the ball into the net, an attempt that failed
miserably and trickled wide. A volley of boos rained down as the Italian departed from the pitch, and a verbal altercation with his manager all but capped off the moment.

Although it feels as if Balotelli has been in the game for ages, he is still only 27 years old. He’s played for 6 different clubs throughout his career, a testament to his disciplinary troubles and conflicting personality. His career has reached the heights of the mighty Mt. Everest, but has also traversed through the depths of the deepest places on Earth. He has endured egregious racism: ranging from monkey chants at Bastia, to banana-yielding Interistas at the San Siro. He has been sent off only minutes after his manager specifically instructed him to avoid a second yellow; he has clashed with managers and teammates; he has scored breathtaking freekicks and sublime volleys. Best of all, he’s transcended the boundaries of the stereotypical footballer and defied the concept of predictability.

Balotelli is quite the journeyman considering his relative age. He’s bounced around his fair share of clubs throughout his career, never staying with a club for over 3 seasons (a due testament to his disciplinary issues and attitude crises). This well-known fact should detract nothing from his game and all that he’s accomplished, however. There have been various periods in his career when it looked as if the Italian was truly out for the count, and other periods that leave us onlookers questioning the endless possibilities offered up by Balotelli’s unfulfilled potential. Paradoxical stints with Liverpool and Nice exemplify the roller coaster-like trajectory of Super Mario’s footballing career. Balotelli’s character defies description, to adumbrate briefly. A polarized persona, he can be hard to love and easy to hate for the casual fan. However, a deeper dive into Balotelli’s career can elucidate the inner workings of the arcane Italian.

Born in Palermo, Balotelli was only 3 years old when his Ghanaian immigrant parents were recommended by the Italian social services to foster their son. An informal adoption transpired, Francesco and Silvio Balotelli taking a young Mario under their wings. In 2006, then 15-year- old Balotelli won himself a page in the record books, becoming the youngest player to play in the Serie C, for A.C. Lumezanne. In fact, his technical skills were so prevalent that he had a trial with F.C. Barcelona, but failed to earn himself an opportunity with the Catalan giants. His performances at Lumezanne earned him recognition from bigger clubs, and soon enough Internazionale came knocking on the front door. Inter took a gamble with Balotelli, and they played their cards skillfully.

After about half a season spent with the U19’s, manager Roberto Mancini decided it was time for the big leap. He quickly became a first- team regular, but he didn’t present himself to the world until a Coppa Italia faceoff with bitter rivals Juventus. Heading into the second leg of the quarterfinal tie away from home, Inter was tied 2-2 on aggregate; the stage was set for Balotelli. In an astonishing display – keep in mind Balotelli was only 17 at the time – he propelled I Nerazzurri to a 3-2 victory, bagging a brace. His second goal was majestic, receiving the ball inside the box, turning and striking the ball on the volley, ultimately scoring the tie- winning goal for Inter. His first campaign saw him record 7 goals in only 15 matches, an impressive output for a teenager.

The grass wasn’t greener on the other side. Roberto Mancini soon departed the club, and guess who assumed the helm? The Special One, José Mourinho. Boasting one of the greatest managerial records in history, The Special One and Super Mario had difficultly coexisting. Two egos of their stature were destined to clash. In typical Mourinho fashion, Balotelli’s manager publicly criticized him, slamming his work ethic and labeling him a “nobody.” Balotelli was dropped from the squad, and his young career path was cluttered with obstacles. He was becoming ever more exposed to the insensibilities of Serie A fans, as more and more racist chants were crafted to hurl insult after insult against him.

To say Balotelli did nothing to better his cause is an understatement. His antagonistic playstyle and theatrical reactions sparked numerous confrontations in his early days. Although Balotelli is certainly an antagonist in nature, it gives no justification to the racial cruelty he has so often faced throughout his years. Wherever Balotelli went, controversy tended to follow. Relations at Inter worsened after Balotelli removed his jersey after a match and threw it to the floor, a gesture that provoked an incendiary response from the club, teammates, and the Italian media. Perhaps the most provocative of his many questionable actions was when he was pictured holding an AC Milan jersey while still with Inter, sparking immediate backlash that spread like wildfire.

Balotelli longed for an escape, and former manager Roberto Mancini was the perfect outlet. A move to Manchester City was on the cards, and in 2010 the blue side of Manchester snapped up Balotelli for €29M, a whopping transfer fee for a 20-year- old. His time in the blue side of Manchester proved to be a microcosm of his career trajectory, laden with meteoric highs and astonishing lows. A part of City’s title-winning squad in 2012 and a fist fight with Roberto Mancini exemplify the paradoxical nature of
Balotelli’s stint in Manchester. 30 goals and 7 assists in 80 appearances capped off his time in England, but he stirred up more controversy than he did success.

Amid Balotelli’s topsy-turvy time at Manchester, one must not forget his memorable performance at the 2012 Euros. Leading the line in a star-studded Italian lineup, Balotelli notched 3 goals in the competition, including an unforgettable half-volley in the semifinal against Germany. Although Italy fell short in the final to Spain, Balotelli’s performance for Gli Azzurri gave indication that his career path could possibly be flipped on its head and turn successful.

The season following Balotelli’s Euro performances didn’t bring as much fortune as it promised. Constant controversy hovered over the Italian’s head like a dark cloud marking the beginning of a storm. Things turned sour the season after winning the title, and a disgruntled Mancini shipped Balotelli back to where he came from, but this time he would don the red and black colors of A.C. Milan. Mancini boldly predicted guaranteed success for him after his restoration in the Serie A. An impressive goalscoring streak to start his career with the Rossoneri inspired promise, with Balotelli ending on 12 goals in 13 games. However, euphoria would soon be replaced by exasperation.

The 2013-14 season was dismal for Milan, but Balotelli managed to keep his personal numbers respectable. Nevertheless, flashes of genius did not outweigh Balotelli’s apathetic attitude, and Milan fans were growing tired of their ambiguous attacker. An antithesis to his arrival, Balotelli left Milan after only 18 months, simply announcing that his time at the club had come to an end. His next stop? Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool.

To simply summarize the next two years of Balotelli’s career, only two words are needed: utter disaster. Liverpool and Milan witnessed a Balotelli at one of the severe troughs of his career, uncharacteristically poor at finishing and struggling to rediscover a sliver of form. An open goal miss against QPR proved to be a microcosm of these 2 years, where he only managed 7 goals in domestic play. Whether it be an issue of tactical incongruity or a case of personal struggles, the footballing world had all but labeled Balotelli as the “one who could’ve been.”

His tomb was sealed. The heavy stone was rolled in front of it and his career was deemed to be dead, another victim to unfulfilled potential. Perhaps Luigi Garlando put it best: “[Balotelli] is condemned to chase a rainbow that he will never reach. He is Ulysses without Ithaca.” But for Balotelli, Ithaca was discovered in a new land: France.

OGC Nice presented themselves as a brilliant opportunity for the Italian, and a deadline day deal saw the Italian swept up by the tactician Lucien Favre. President Jean-Pierre Rivère took a gamble, and the return has been sky-high. Balotelli dusted off his boots, and allowed his natural aptitude to flourish. His revitalization has been breathtaking, and he has paved the way for Nice’s newfound success. The enigma of Balotelli has been cracked, and Nice are getting maximum utility from their Italian attacker.

Beginning his 2nd season with the French side, Balotelli has grabbed 23 goals in only 36 appearances, a number that nearly eclipses his combined goals from the prior 3 seasons. Perhaps the allurement of Balotelli’s persona – for me at least – is his dynamic nature. Versatility supplemented by volatility; flair complemented by fury; ability combined with arrogance. Whether you remember him for his trademark muscle flex celebration against Germany, or his “Why Always Me” celebration against United, for Balotelli, there is more than meets the eye. A set-piece specialist, an exemplary penalty taker, a lethal striker; all suitable descriptions of the illusive Italian, but they fail to truly encapsulate the person he is. His background, his experiences, and his trials conjoin to constitute the elaborate man he is today.

One of the most convoluted identities in world football, Balotelli has experienced it all. Managers, teammates, and fans alike have all witnessed the ambivalent nature of Balotelli’s career, but as the Italian approaches the pinnacle of his career, it seems like he’s finally found the perfect home. He has defied all that has stood in his way, whether it be the confines of footballing expectations, or the racial stereotypes he has so often encountered in Italy. Thus, in my opinion, it’s only fitting that Balotelli’s resurrection has a relatively happy ending.

By: Brandon Duran/@Alcxntara6

Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty