FEATURES

AFTER HIS RETURN TO BRESCIA, IS IT TIME FOR A NEW MARIO BALOTELLI?

Filled with enormous talent but a dodgy attitude, Mario Balotelli has shown glimpses of brilliance but never fulfilled his potential. Now at home with Brescia, he has a big chance to remind everyone how good he truly is.

There are very few things which can stun a boy accustomed to extraordinariness. At the age of 17, Mario Balotelli was everything but a normal youth cutting his teeth on professional football, just as most of his peers did.

In fact, he didn’t even celebrate his first two career goals he scored during Inter Milan’s 4-1 thrashing of Reggina in the Coppa Italia last 16 in 2007. After firing home a rebound from close range, Balotelli calmly walked off the post, simply smiling back to his teammates who hastened to congratulate him on the memorable achievement, at least for every ordinary boy.

However, in a gesture that would become a trademark (non) celebration for the Italian striker, he tried to downplay the significance of the milestone he had just reached, as to say that ‘plenty more will come, so don’t be surprised’. After some time, he would tell the press that he genuinely felt like there was nothing to celebrate, as he was just “doing his job”.

In a way, that says it all about Mario Balotelli. For many years to come, he would try to escape boredom and ordinariness in each and every one of his experiences, even at the cost of hampering his footballing abilities. To put it as his former teammate Marco Materazzi did in a recent interview to La Gazzetta dello Sport, “maybe the fact that he knew he was that good eventually led Mario to give less than he should have. He might have thought his talent alone was enough”.

This is why Balotelli’s decision to join Brescia matters so much.

When presented with the opportunity to sign for Flamengo and impose himself as one of the most influential players in the Brazilian league, in a city where the love for football and fun are merged like no other place, the Italian might have wondered whether the time had eventually come to leave European football and forget its constant demand for consistency, dedication, and improvement.

After all, it is easy to picture Mario Balotelli enjoying the Rio de Janeiro life, happily celebrating his side’s wins by sipping a caipirinha on the shore of Copacabana surrounded by fans. Let’s be honest: half of the talent he’s shown during his career would have been more than enough to take Brasileirao by storm.

Inter Milan
INTER MILAN HAD MASSIVE FAITH IN MARIO BALOTELLI’S POTENTIAL

But then again, Balotelli is no trivial man. When everything he ever wanted looked within reach, he probably realised that the final chapter everyone was expecting to read, after years of wasted talent, could still wait. For the first time in his career, the 29-year-old seems to have put football in the first place, turning down the prospect of becoming the fleeting idol of yet another fanbase in favour of something way more essential: putting his experience at the service of a little newcomer filled with talented youngsters, eager to be guided by the city’s prodigal son.

For once, it looks like Balotelli has stopped chasing his own reputation, the one of a glamorous boy who sometimes seemed more interested in the resonance that his actions sparked, rather than asking himself if a certain team and environment could help him express his potential.

In fact, there’s no place where Balotelli wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm and reverie. As soon as his talent and finishing skills became known worldwide, many teams started to figure out how to transform that rough diamond into a polished gem. The answer proved not to be easy, though. Every time, Super Mario gradually turned the initial enthusiasm into frustration and eventually intolerance.

After having been spoiled with several promising performances and some amazing goals, Inter fans were the first to witness Balotelli’s flip side. As José Mourinho brought him on in a tense Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, with his side 3-1 ahead, the striker’s lazy attitude sparked discontent among the fans, baffled by his apparent lack of commitment in an Inter side who were fighting tooth and nail to earn a spot in the major European final for the first time in almost 40 years.

Super Mario then traded insults with the supporters in the closing minutes of the game, before the situation escalated: following the final whistle, Balotelli took the Inter shirt off and threw it on the ground, the only negative note at the end of a historic night for the club, who would go on to seal their third Champions League title.

San Siro’s incredulous crowd couldn’t help but think that Balotelli had failed to understand the value of the opportunity he was given.

This kind of love-hate relationship would become a constant in the striker’s career. When a treble-winning Inter decided to part ways with Balotelli, the Manchester City reunion with Roberto Mancini, the coach who had given him his debut, was regarded as the perfect occasion for Balotelli to thrive and eventually learn to control the unpredictability who repeatedly led him to walk a thin line between brilliance and disaster.

Yet, Balotelli’s strokes of genius were often followed by some controversial actions which made fans, teammates and coaches easily forget about the benefits of having such player on the pitch. In the night that saw him score his first Premier League goals of his Ethiad Stadium spell, the striker bagged twice before being sent-off for kicking out at an opponent.

Matches like this gave the impression that, after all, all the Italian really wanted, at least until deciding to join Brescia, was to be the most talked-about footballer, as the famous ‘Why Always Me’ shirt reminds. Such attitude would soon result in growing difficulty for his managers, as they struggled to guess whether Balotelli could be a reliable choice on a specific day rather than a moody player acting to the detriment of his own team.

As time went on, it became clear that the “bright guy who did some bizarre things”, as the Manchester City kitman once described the forward, couldn’t help but fall back into old patterns. As scoring goals fell within the category of ‘ordinary things’, Balotelli seemed interested in making headlines for all the wrong reasons, which include red cards, throwing darts at youth players as well as setting his own house on fire by using fireworks.

At the age of 22, despite his astonishing talent, Balotelli had already turned himself into a high-risk gamble for all the clubs willing to sign him. AC Milan came next — the pressure and bias which came with his decision to join his former side’s city rival gave Super Mario the right boost to focus on his duties on the pitch, as the striker seemed determined to prove his detractors wrong.

In fact, Balotelli was instrumental in the Rossoneri successful fight for a Champions League spot, before scoring another 18 goals in the following season, a figure he had never reached until then. Nevertheless, his long-term inconsistency on the pitch once again prevented him from becoming the leader everyone expected Balotelli to be — AC Milan paid dearly for trying to rely on the striker’s episodic talent, as they endured a miserable season, eventually finishing in the eighth place.

Mancini
ROBERTO MANCINI AND MARIO BALOTELLI HAD A STRANGE RELATIONSHIP

Nothing changed at Liverpool, which was arguably the worst spell of Balotelli’s career. At the end of the Anfield nightmare, the Italian would blame both physical problems and Brendan Rodgers’ system, while the club seemed desperate to offload him after a single season amid usual reports of unprofessional behaviour, with Steven Gerrard admitting that he was “unmanageable”.

But maybe it was Rodgers who got the point more than anyone else, as he defined Balotelli “as a good guy” once you get rid of “the circus around him, control the background noise and focus him on his football”.

An unfruitful one-season loan at AC Milan marked the striker’s last stint in the top four European leagues, as he set off for France after coach Siniša\ Mihajlović unsurprisingly complained about his lack of dedication and focus, telling the press that the player would follow his instructions “once every four times”.

While his fame looked compromised and major outfits in the continent started to shy away from him, Balotelli’s name was still able to spark enthusiasm amongst some minor clubs — this was the case for Nice, who were building an ambitious team and gave Super Mario a hero’s welcome, as he was seen as their icing on the cake.

As expected, it took him no time to start terrorising Ligue 1 defences, as he scored 17 and 26 goals respectively in his first two seasons with the Cote d’Azur side. Yet, everyone knew that the passing of time and the boredom that came with it would prove more difficult to beat than any centre-back — in fact, despite giving proof of his great finishing abilities more consistently, Balotelli could never get over his attitude problems, switching between impressive displays and red cards with bewildering facility.

After making everyone lose their patience in his third season at Nice, where he was even outcasted by his former teammate and then coach Patrick Vieira, he moved to Marseille for a six-month spell which perfectly sums up his essence: the Italian netted eight goals in 15 outings before waving goodbye to the French league in his own way, by getting a red card after a pointless tackle from behind in midfield.

His final act at the Stade Vélodrome meant that Balotelli had earned at least a red card with all the six different teams he had represented at a professional level.

But maybe it was the money spent by these clubs which were most representative of his decline. The initial €28M Manchester City paid to Inter Milan was turned into a €20M fee as AC Milan gave him another chance to shine. The figure remained unchanged when Liverpool decided to gamble on the striker, only to be desperate enough to offload him for free two years later, following another one-season loan spell at the Rossoneri. Eventually, both Nice and Marseille would accept to release Super Mario.

But why would Brescia be the ideal place for Balotelli to twist the narrative of his career?

By deciding to join the team of the town close to where he moved when he was just a kid, Balotelli didn’t simply try to get another contract and extend his career — he turned down the Brazilian spotlight in favour of a little newcomer because he still believes he has a role to play.

There will be no huge salaries and renowned players to welcome him — actually, he’ll be one of the most experienced members in a team littered with young talents eager to make the big leap.

The kind of challenge Balotelli has accepted will force him to carry the weight of responsibility and show his teammates the way, especially by telling them the lesson he has learned — talent alone is not enough to be successful in today’s football.

In an environment willing to protect him, with the Stadio Rigamonti within walking distance from his home and his family close to him, all the ingredients to finally turn Balotelli into an added value and a local hero seem to be there.

Although Brescia have just returned to Serie A after eight seasons and will probably be fighting to maintain their top-flight status, the Rondinelle have definitely seen better days, with Roberto Baggio and Pep Guardiola being the most iconic players to have worn their shirt.

Brescia
MARIO BALOTELLI CAN RE-AFFIRM HIS STATUS IN ITALY AT HOMETOWN CLUB, BRESCIA

For once, Balotelli could act like a normal boy trying to follow in their footsteps, adding pride and motivation to his indisputable class. After several high-profile experiences ended on a sour note, the forward has decided to take a step back and start over from scratch, something that people blessed with his talent don’t always have to pass through.

One thing won’t change, though. As always, the outcome will only depend on him. If he’s really ready to get his hands dirty in order to bring joy to his fans and steer Brescia to more years of Serie A football, while setting his sight on Euro 2020, both the Rondinelle and Italy national team will benefit greatly from a player that everyone has been waiting for more than a decade. The four-game ban he has to serve on his Serie A return, the legacy of his last red card in France, will act as a reminder of his past mistakes.

Now that he’s almost 30, Balotelli could be stunned by how much extraordinariness can be hidden in the simplest things.

BY ALESSANDRO BAI