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Chaitanya Jadhav has a look at the incredible tale of Mario Balotelli whose career has all the elements of a bestseller.
For every footballer who has fulfilled his potential, there are hundreds, if not thousands of them who have failed to make their mark on the beautiful game. Most of them had limitless, boundless talent, which could only be measured through comparisons to the all-time greats. As a matter of fact, we’ve all heard of players who could be “The next Messi”, “The next Ronaldo”, “The next Iniesta”.
Unknowingly, names like Freddy Adu and Robinho have been subliminally engraved in our minds. They are equally, if not, more popular than the household names of world beaters, because they serve to remind us of the “dark side” of football. We ponder over their mistakes and then commence to dream about what the world would look like if they would have fulfilled their potential and if they would have become famous for the right reasons. Unfortunately, none of us will ever know.
It’s not often that we get to observe a player at the crossroads of his career. Mario Balotelli, at one point of time, possessed limitless capability, flair, and genius, and set the world on fire. Unfortunately, his name began to fade away, and everybody was convinced that he was done for. Thankfully, he has managed to dig his career out of the grave recently, resurrecting it with his newfound passion in France. Things are looking up for him, and it almost seems like he might just shape his future into the beautiful career that it was once meant to be. His story has varied in its genres. Once a bestseller, it became a tragedy, then a comedy, and now, it’s beginning to look like a miracle. Now, all that’s left is a happy ending.
This tournament was Italy’s best chance to win international silverware. Their starting lineups boasted players in their prime, with tremendous talent. Gianluigi Buffon, now an Italian veteran, then a world-class keeper, held the keys to the Italian goal, and with the help of his gatekeepers, Bonucci and Barzagli, ensured that conceding would be an unlikely possibility. Meanwhile, they had, in midfield, the right-hand man of the king, the world-class assisting machine, Andrea Pirlo. The only player that Italy didn’t have was a powerful goal bringing striker. This caused many pundits to worry about their performances once they approached the final stages of the competition.
Cue the semi-final. Millions of viewers around the world, wondering if this would be the first chance for Italy to cement a place for themselves in an international final. Millions of Italians watching, in bated breath, taking care not to celebrate too early, just in case their dreams turn into nightmares. The stage was set for a world-class performance, and boy, did Mario Balotelli deliver.
On that fateful night, against the soon-to-be world champions, he did the unthinkable. Millions watched as he pranced, pounced and picked apart the German defence. Joachim Low stood in disbelief, watching as the young man sliced through his world –class defence like butter. It was almost like child’s play.
Cassano sent the defenders into a frenzy on the left wing, before delicately chipping a cross into Mario’s path. He leaped up, over Badstuber, over Manuel Neuer, over our expectations, to head the ball into the back of the net. Italy rejoiced. They had one leg in the final, and they had the talisman that they had been looking for. But he wasn’t done yet. Montolivo received the ball on the left flank after it was cleared out. Looking up, he spotted Mario making a run between the centre backs. Without hesitation, he played the ball into the path of his run, hoping for the spectacular. Well, he wasn’t disappointed. THAT goal, in essence, summed up Mario Balotelli at that point of time. Young, bursting with exuberance, talent and a lot of power. Despite the little errors that he might have made (his attempt to control the ball while it was landing was a bit unsuccessful) at that time, there was a lot of promise around the lad.
As he stood, motionless, shirtless, flexing every muscle in his body, he became a statue, erected in his honour by the Italians, as a token of their appreciation and gratitude. That semi-final effectively announced his arrival to the world. It did more than just showcase the sheer talent that he processed. Italy was in the final, and from that moment onwards, the hopes and dreams of all of its supporters rested on the shoulders of one man. The man who singlehandedly dismantled Germany. The man who scored a volley from outside the box against Manuel Neuer, no less.
Super Mario also had a much- needed effect on the ideologies of most Italians. He, in essence, redefined the definition of a normal Italian. His constant run-ins with racial conflicts and his nonchalance towards them painted him as a hero in the eyes of the racially oppressed. Like other black footballers (Thierry Henry had a similar effect when he won the World Cup in France), he instigated a change in the mindsets of the Italians, allowing more dark-skinned people to be accepted in the society. Italy owes a lot to him. Not only did he single-handedly put them in the finals, he also reformed the country in his own little way.
At that point of time, things were looking up for him. He’d shown his talent on the pitch, and the effects of it were clearly felt. Clubs marked him out, convinced that he was going to be the next big thing. Many hoped that the only direction that his career would go would be up. Unfortunately, they were going to be very, very disappointed.
After a monumental league campaign, Liverpool had to replace an outgoing Luis Suarez – understandably, the dream of playing for Barcelona was too attractive for a striker of his calibre. His sale meant that Liverpool had a large amount of money to spend in the transfer window, and they had to be intelligent in their purchases, since Suarez was, effectively, the main reason for their success in the usage of their diamond 4-4-2 formation during their breakthrough season.
His brilliant goalscoring ability, touch on the ball and eye for the pass made him a complete forward. In a way, his very presence on the pitch improved the performance of his teammates, from the likes of energetic midfielders like Jordan Henderson to the calm veterans such as Steven Gerrard. This allowed Liverpool to be extremely successful in their attacking exploits. Therefore, the loss of a player of his calibre meant that Liverpool’s gears could not turn in the way that they used to.
Balotelli, unfortunately, is nothing like a Suarez. He plays the role of a target man, somebody who is able to hold up play, make passes and score goals. He is accustomed to formations which focus their play through him. The idea of team play and making assists simply doesn’t stick in his mind. But he wasn’t alone (sorry). Liverpool’s other signings, most of them attack minded, were habituated to playing in different formations. This meant that the defenders preferred a 4-4-2 formation and its variants, whereas the midfielders and striker preferred playing in a 4-2-3-1, or 4-3-3.
This problem of tactical dissonance, combined with Balotelli’s poor form during his rare appearances caused Rodgers to snuff out the dying embers of his career – once set alight at the EURO’s, then, ironically, extinguished in the league that he made his name in. Furthermore, his training antics made him unpopular with the managers that he worked with – from lighting firecrackers to pranking teammates, most of the gaffers that he worked under were soon made aware of the negative externalities of buying him. Many serenaded his talent, but were also quick to warn the others about the opportunity cost of buying him.
For example, Marseille defender Rod Fanni compared signing him to playing a game of “Russian Roulette”, which is an extremely accurate comparison, because his purchase can either work wonders, such as his time in Manchester City, or managers could end up shooting themselves in their feet. Furthermore, credible managers such as Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini described him as unmanageable, while his Italian teammates, who had no shortage of praise for his talent, also made public pleas for him to focus on his football.
“If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault, because he has everything. Mario can be one of the top players in Europe. I don’t want him to lose his talent.” – Roberto Mancini
“I have played with some of the best strikers, and I can tell you Mario has all the attributes to be one of the best strikers in the world. By now I thought that is where he would be, that is where he should be. He has no more time to waste.” – Andrea Pirlo
Balotelli turned out to be a classic case of wasted genius – his decline was painful for everybody in the football world, except for him, it seemed.
While spending time on the bench, Balotelli began to embrace his newfound fame as a “celebrity” (albeit for the wrong reasons), and every prank or funny incident related to him increased his “popularity”. He abandoned the beautiful game, disappointing millions of his well-wishers. After a few years in limbo at Liverpool, he was written off by fans and pundits alike, and eventually the manager(s), who dismissed him and sent him out of loan to a declining AC Milan team. He was soon branded as one of the many “failed prospects” that plague the game. However, help was arriving, and from an extremely unlikely place.
During the summer transfer window, Nice lost their newfound talisman, Hatem Ben Arfa, to their league rivals, PSG. They found themselves in a state which was, unfortunately, uncannily similar to Liverpool a few years ago. Like Suarez, Ben Arfa was the talisman and the centre of the team. The offense ran through him, and his silky skills and eloquent passing allowed him to score 17 goals and create 33 chances in 34 appearances. With a 61% take on success rate, he was one of the most effective midfielders in Europe’s top 5 leagues, and had a tremendous role to play in his team’s finish at fourth place.
Ben Arfa was facing a similar problem last season. His career, which was once extremely promising, had declined drastically. He sought to rekindle his passion for the game by arriving at France and making a clean slate of things – that worked wonders. The world began to know him for his talent once again – and not his failures.
Balotelli followed Ben Arfa – a deadline day deal to Nice seemed to be perfect for kick-starting his career once again. It was quite clear that his disturbing presence was unwelcome at Klopp’s Kop, where he was trying to create chemistry between the team to play the fluid football that he employed at Borussia Dortmund, and it was also quite clear that no English team would want to sign him. AC Milan didn’t work out too well, so why not try France?
Balotelli made his debut for Nice against Marseille, and he played a brilliant game. We finally saw the Mario that we wanted to see. Dropping deep to spread the play, working hard to press the ball, running into the box for crosses – it was almost as if nothing had changed. Currently, Balotelli is the marquee signing for Nice, and the manager Lucien Favre has been encouraging him to work hard, to ensure that he gets his fair return on the risk that he took. He’s also aware of the effects that it might have on the player – Mario needs to return to the national side, to reprove his talent with the side that made his career.
For once, everything is pointing to the right direction for Mario Balotelli – once a hit, then a flop, now a castaway, he has the chance to make himself great again. He’s entering the peak age of a footballer, recently turning 26. He always had the talent – there’s no questioning that. With four goals in two games at the time of writing, it’s time for him to work hard and rebuild his career from scratch. I believe that he’s slowly changing his ways – to ensure that the world remembers him for the right reasons. Only time will tell if he lights the world on fire again – but we should remain optimistic.
To summarize – “I don’t have any advice for him anymore, he knows the qualities that he has. From this point, it’s up to Mario.” – Andrea Pirlo