14th September 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
To many observers, joining Nice may have been seen as a step down in the career of Mario Balotelli. After all, the list of clubs on the Italian striker’s CV is an impressive one; Internazionale, Manchester City, AC Milan and Liverpool are all teams associated with the top end of their respective leagues, and all regulars on the European stage.
Nice, whose four Ligue 1 championships are all more than 50 years in the past, don’t have the history of the Milanese giants or Liverpool, and haven’t experienced anything like the recent success of City. But the Côte d’Azur club might be the perfect place for Balotelli to get his career back on track.
In fact, just last year, Hatem Ben Arfa found himself in a similar predicament to the Italian international. Released by Newcastle after a disastrous couple of seasons in the Premier League, including a disappointing loan spell at Hull City, Ben Arfa’s stock was at an all-time low.
As a youngster, the Frenchman was regarded as one of the brightest prospects on the Continent, but, much like Balotelli, there were always questions over his attitude and commitment
After early successful spells at Lyon and Marseille both ended on a sour note, Ben Arfa joined Newcastle United, where again he looked a class act initially. But the wheels came off in 2014 as his form deteriorated, and in January last year he was released from his Newcastle contract.
Short of options, Ben Arfa joined Nice last summer, and perhaps the lack of interest from high profile clubs caused a long overdue reassessment by the player. With a refocussing of his priorities and a newfound determination, Ben Arfa was a revelation for Les Aiglons last season, scoring 18 goals from 37 appearances to help the club finish fourth in Ligue 1, just two points off second place. A summer move to champions Paris Saint Germain soon followed for the 29-year-old.
So the Allianz Riviera could prove to be the perfect stage for Balotelli to resurrect his aberrant career. Away from the glistening limelight of the Premier League and Serie A, yet still facing competition of a high standard, the 26-year-old has the opportunity to show that his immense talent has not gone to waste; that he’s not, as many feel, a busted flush.
For Balotelli, the move to Nice is not a second, or even third, chance at redemption; that point was reached long ago.
The Palermo-born striker signed for Inter in his teens, and quickly marked himself out as one of the most outstanding young talents in Serie A, scoring seven times in 15 appearances during his first season at the San Siro, and 10 from 31 in his second.
But the youngster soon drew the ire of manager José Mourinho, with the Portuguese coach excluding him from match day squads due to a perceived lack of effort in training – and the fact that Balotelli appeared on television wearing an AC Milan shirt did not help relations between player and club.
In April 2010, Balotelli had worked his way back into Mourinho’s plans, but controversy was again lurking just around the corner. Following Inter’s Champions League tie against Barcelona, Balotelli threw his shirt to the ground in response to some fans who had booed his below-par performance.
Teammate and Inter legend Javier Zanetti had some words of warning for Balotelli: “Mario needs to focus on doing what he can do on the pitch, he can’t allow himself to behave like this.”
Rather than seek redemption, Balotelli instead sought a new challenge, and Inter were more than happy to accept Manchester City’s €21.8 million bid for the talented yet troublesome forward.
Balotelli notched his first Premier League goal in a match against West Bromwich Albion in November 2010, and was then sent off in the same game after a confrontation with Youssuf Mulumbu.
Some fine early-season form for City saw Balotelli handed the Golden Boy award, given to the most outstanding young player in Europe each year. A week after collecting the award, Balotelli registered his first Premier League hat-trick, bagging a treble in 4-0 win over Aston Villa.
Balotelli showed the full extent of his prodigious abilities during City’s FA Cup final victory of Stoke City at the end of his first season in England, as he was named Man of the Match in a 1-0 win.
The following season, an impressive return of 17 goals from 32 games was juxtaposed with further disciplinary problems, as the Italian was sent off four times in that campaign alone. The last of which, against Arsenal in April, appeared to anger City manager Roberto Mancini to the point that the coach was seemingly ready to give up on Balotelli.
But Balotelli still managed to make a decisive contribution before the end of the season. Coming off the bench as a late substitute in City’s final game of the Premier League campaign, the former Inter striker assisted Sergio Agüero’s stoppage time winner. The goal secured the Citizens’ first league title in more than 40 years.
During the summer of 2012, Balotelli produced the most impressive form of his career to date, as he netted three goals – including two in an outstanding performance against Germany in the semi-final – to help Italy reach the final of Euro 2012.
But the then-22-year-old struggled to carry his international form into club football with City, and after scoring just once in 14 Premier League games, he was loaned to AC Milan in January 2013.
Balotelli hit the ground running in his return to Serie A, netting 12 times in 13 games for the Rossoneri – the last of which helped Milan overcome Siena on the final day of the season to secure Champions League qualification.
Milan paid €20 million to make the loan move permanent that summer. Balotelli managed a respectable return of 18 goals from 41 games, but questions began to arise over his attitude once again, as his effort and commitment was questioned towards the end of the season. The striker once again found himself in hot water in April, when he was fined after being caught smoking on a train as Milan travelled to an away fixture against Fiorentina.
At the end of the season, Balotelli was sold to Liverpool for £16 million, a price at which, having just lost Luis Suárez to Barcelona, the former City player seemed like a risk worth taking for the Reds. Legendary Italian marksman Christian Vieri commented that, having sold Balotelli to Liverpool, the seven-time European champions had made the best transfer move in their history.
With just four goals in 28 appearances for Liverpool in all competitions, Balotelli was considered an unqualified flop on Merseyside and was loaned back to Milan last season. But it was not a successful return to the Milanese giants for Balotelli, as injury and poor form restricted him to just 20 Serie A appearances, in which he mustered only one goal.
With Milan unwilling to take Balotelli back permanently, and with Liverpool desperate to cut their ties with the 26-year-old to remove him from their wage bill, and willing to allow him to leave Anfield for free, a summer of transfer speculation ensued.
But there were no reports linking the 33-cap Azzurri forward to Champions League contenders; no Manchester City, no Internazionale or Milan this time. Instead, it was the likes of Chievo and Palermo showing interest in Italy, with FC Sion of Switzerland also considering a move.
And, to the surprise of many, it was Nice who eventually snapped up Balotelli. And after a brace in a 3-2 win over Marseille in his debut, the French club will be feeling confident that their move for the Italian was an astute one.
Balotelli will be hoping he can replicate the success of Ben Arfa at Nice. Then, in a year or two, perhaps the Elite clubs around Europe will again view him as a viable target.
But for now, the former Manchester City and Milan striker needs to focus solely on his football and prove his worth to his new club. Under new manager Lucien Favre – who recently transformed Borussia Monchengladbach from Bundesliga also-rans to Champions League qualifiers – Nice will feel confident of again reaching the upper echelons of Ligue 1.
It’s time to get back to basics for Balotelli. His ability has never been under question, but he needs to demonstrate that he is capable of the requisite levels of effort and application in order to deliver on his massive potential. If he can do that, then Ligue 1 will be the perfect stage for him to show the world that he is the player we all hoped he would become.