Andrea Pirlo appears to be one of the last high-profile footballers to have hope left for Mario Balotelli after the veteran midfielder claimed his countryman could still become one of the best strikers in the world.
Balotelli's career has reached a critical point this summer. He failed to earn a permanent move back to AC Milan after a poor season on loan at the San Siro and is reportedly unwanted by his parent club Liverpool.
Having failed to make any sort of impact on the game over the last two years, offers from clubs competing at an international level are few and far between. Indeed, one of the only clubs seemingly interested is Serie A newcomers Crotone.
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But Pirlo, himself a legend of Italian football, believes Balotelli still has time to transform his immense talent into on-pitch success. That is despite the fact he is approaching his 26th birthday and faces an uncertain future at the top end of the game.
“He frustrates me, but I do have so much affection for Mario,” the Juventus legend told The Mirror.
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All the attributes to thrive
“He is infectious to be around. When I used to see him walk into training for Italy, he would have this big smile on his face - and I would just burst out laughing - and start wondering what is he thinking, what is he up to?
“Mario should not just be a character the media write about for good stories. We shouldn’t forget what a special player he is. 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.”
Liverpool fans may be inclined to disagree with the stylish MLS star after seeing him return just one Premier League goal for their club's £16million outlay. In total, Balotelli has cost £59m in transfer fees and countless more millions in wages. With a poor attitude and a tendency to cause controversy, few clubs would be willing to blow much more on the risk.
However, one place he could conceivably continue to make millions and score a hatful of goals is the Chinese Super League. Clubs in the Far East have shown a willingness to pay big money to average players and Balotelli is seen as a prime target.
But Pirlo wants the striker to reject a move to China and try to prove his doubters wrong by establishing himself in Europe.
“He has played for so many big clubs, it’s easy to forget he’s only 25,” said Pirlo. “He still has time to make it at the very top.
“He needs to pick his next club carefully. I have read things about him and China. With all respect to their league, Mario should not be going there yet.
“If he has two or three good seasons at his next club, he will still only be 28 and could join one of the top clubs in Europe. I don’t have any advice for him anymore, he knows the qualities that he has. From this point, it’s up to Mario.”