“If you hit the target every time it’s too near or too big.”- Tom Hirshfield
He has become one of the easiest targets to hit in football, justly or unjustly, because he is always so near to the edge and has an ego too big for his own good. That target is polarizing OGC Nice striker, Mario Balotelli, whose repeated failures to learn from past mistakes have made it hard to feel sorry for him as he is on the verge of blowing yet another great opportunity at redemption.
After being shown his third red card of the 2016/17 Ligue 1 season in Nice’s 1-0 victory over Lorient on February 18 (technically his second red given one was rescinded on appeal), Balotelli is once again the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. This after he allegedly insulted match referee, Tony Chapron, in English after a seemingly innocuous challenge.
While teammates such as goalkeeper, Yoan Cardinale, came to the Italian international’s defense, claiming the referee ‘wanted to make a name for himself,’ his manager, Lucien Favre, seemed less understanding. Favre’s recent comments about Balotelli’s lack of defensive contributions in games gave a clear indication that he’s losing patience with his summer signing and, following the Lorient match, refused to go along with the assertion that Balo’s latest red was a result of his reputation.
“You think it’s red because it’s Balotelli? That’s nonsense. They are perfectly impartial. If there is a reason to send someone off, they do it. If there is no reason to send someone off, they don’t do it.” – Lucien Favre.
Just two months ago, Super Mario was powering Nice’s attack and winning the adoration of fans as they surprisingly topped the Ligue 1 table over four-time defending champions, Paris Saint-Germain, and Europe’s most exciting team to watch this campaign, AS Monaco. Though all of Balotelli’s nine league goals have come at the Allianz Riviera, they were hugely important, with Nice winning all six matches he has scored in. Braces in his first two starts against Marseille and Monaco gave Balotelli a dream start and, despite typically drifting off from time to time, energized a club in need of a boost after losing exciting, free-wielding midfielder, Hatem Ben Arfa, to PSG in the summer. A wonderful curling strike four minutes from time to defeat Lorient 2-1 in their first meeting reminded the world of the undeniable ability the enigmatic front man possesses. The desire to prove his various critics wrong was there as he put in creditable shifts when asked to lead the line.
A calf injury picked up in late November did little to quell Balotelli as he score another brace against Dijon 10 days after his return. Since the winter break, however, the hot-headed Italian’s form has drastically cooled. Just one goal in five since the New Year as well as increasing scrutiny about his in-game work rate and two red cards in his last six league matches have seemingly led things back to square one. Teammate and attacking midfielder, Valentin Eysseric, was especially damning in his assessment of Balotelli’s play and attitude following Nice’s 2-2 draw at Rennes on February 12, which saw the striker dropped from the match day squad.
“It is a shame he lets his head drop, you see him in training every day. He’s such a great player. I think he looks like he wants nothing to do with us. It’s really disappointing. We could’ve really used his help in a game like this. We know the coach (Favre) demands enormous effort from his squad. He won’t accept anyone taking their foot off the gas and you saw that with Mario Balotelli.” – Valentin Eysseric.
Super Mario has succeeded on just 30% of his 27 attempted dribbles this season, far below his normal conversion rate, and just seven key passes, 16 less than he had in 20 league appearances at AC Milan last season, on loan from Liverpool. Essentially, he has done little else aside from score since arriving in France, a criticism he has heard ample times before, despite showing strong on-ball ability to take on defenders and the vision to setup chances while involving himself in attacking build-up play when he wants.
When he wants are the key words. When he wants to be committed to the team in various facets and buy into his coaches’ plans, Balotelli is a tough player to defend and shows stretches of his unlimited potential, some say world-class potential, since his days as a highly-rated prospect at Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan. But when he wants, he also has shown repeated instances of poor discipline, low work ethic and blatant disregard for authority. All this had led Balo to have major falling outs with Mourinho and Roberto Mancini, who seemed the closest of any manager to helping him reach his capabilities as the two shared a near father and son-like bond. Manchester City appeared to be the launching pad to super stardom for Balotelli, who notched 13 league goals for them on their way to a dramatic first English Premier League title in the 2011/12 season. Seven months later though, he was gone, with an infamous training ground spat between himself and Mancini the breaking point in a turbulent, yet successful tenure at the Etihad Stadium.
A season-and-a-half stint at AC Milan saw Balotelli notch 26 goals and six assists in 43 Serie A appearances from January 2013 until May 2014, but with growing instability at the San Siro and following a disastrous 2014 World Cup campaign with Italy, Balotelli was on his way again, this time returning to England with Liverpool as one of the club many purchases following the sale of world-class Uruguayan striker, Luis Suárez. Injuries and a square peg in round hole kind of fit to Liverpool’s style of play made for a nightmarish stay at the club. Plus the admission by then coach, Brendan Rodgers, that he was against the idea to bring Balotelli to Liverpool made for a dicey relationship between player and manager from the off. That led to a rather tame second coming to Milan before embarking on this French adventure.
Set to turn 27 in August, youthful over-exuberance can no longer be used as an excuse to mask Balotelli’s shortcomings as he’s become equally (if not more) known for his temper tantrums and tabloid fodder than on-field plaudits and has become a nomad who has failed to truly settle at any club for a sustained period. This is a player who, while branding the blue and white of the Azzurri, mirrored the Incredible Hulk in celebrating his well-taken brace against Germany at Euro 2012, but has largely been muscled out of consideration for Italy since 2014 as managers, Antonio Conte and Giampiero Ventura were unwilling to take a chance on him. Ventura was at least willing to open the door to a Balotelli return in January, but again questioned the player’s temperament and based on his latest incidents at Nice, his case to come back into the fold suffered another blow.
So what do Nice do with Super Mario from here? With 11 Ligue 1 matches to play, they sit three points behind leaders, Monaco. The least Les Aiglons can afford in their chase for a first league title since 1959 is a distraction, especially one which carries so much baggage like Balotelli. Plus, they have done quite fine without him, having yet to lose any of the 13 league matches he has missed (eight wins and five draws).
On the contrary, when you consider his contributions to title-winning squads at Inter and Manchester City, including that assist to Sergio Agüero to win the 2011/12 English Premier League crown in the dying minutes of the season, you can’t just discard him either. It is a delicate situation Favre will have to negotiate with caution, but he must get Balotelli back with the program as he was earlier in the season to help their chances of overtaking the pair of big money clubs ahead of them. This might be Balotelli’s best chance to straighten out a flailing career, but whether he is truly aware of what he could cost himself should his run at Nice end abruptly remains to be seen given he continues to repeat his errant ways.
Why Always Me? You may have to look hard in the mirror to finally answer that question Mario. While some of the negative press on Balotelli has been exaggerated, he does himself no favours by constantly acting childish in a big man’s game. That target on his back will only get nearer and bigger if he doesn’t mature his game and his behaviour; a target that can only take so many hits before it has no use. Watch your back, Mario.