More than once, Mario Balotelli has vowed to change his ways. Upon joining AC Milan in the summer of 2015, for instance, he claimed to have “learned from [his] mistakes.”
Brendan Rodgers said the Italian forward, a footballing man-child renowned for his wild ways, had matured as he arrived at Liverpool. Of course, in both instances they were false promises. Balotelli hadn’t changed. Not one bit.
Now 27, Balotelli has spent the last two seasons out of the spotlight. This isn’t meant to denounce Ligue 1 and the general quality of French domestic football. Instead, it’s meant as a comment on the pattern of Balotelli’s career up until his move to Nice nearly two years ago. It didn’t matter where he was, the spotlight followed him. But in France, Balotelli has somewhat flown under the radar.
At least in respect of his public antics. On the pitch, Balotelli has more than made an impression in the French Riviera. He has 22 goals from 33 appearances to show for his season so far, following on from 15 goals in 23 appearances last season.
The Italian has enjoyed a career renaissance at Nice and what’s more he has done so without setting off any fireworks from his bathroom or racking up a $400,000 strip club tab 48 hours before any game.
It’s little wonder then that speculation is swirling over Balotelli’s future in France, with a number of Premier League clubs reported to be interested in signing the Italian forward this summer when his contract at Nice expires. Manchester United have even been linked with a move for the former Manchester City man, as unlikely as that particular transfer might be.
Right now, Balotelli might be about to move into the third act of his eventful, yet ultimately unfulfilled, career. Not for the first time, he has a number of options in front of him and at 27 he still has time to reach the heights that were expected of him not so long ago. Now, however, his margin for error has been reduced. Make one more misstep at this stage and he will have blown it, consigned to the pile of players who never quite made the most of the talent they were blessed with.
For a long time it looked like Balotelli had already blown his shot. Liverpool was deemed to be his last chance at the big time, his last opportunity in the Premier League. Nice faced very little competition in signing the Italian from the Reds two years ago, but it will be a different story this summer.
“Without Europe, it’ll be difficult to keep hold of Balotelli,” admitted Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivere. “He is exceptional on the field, he is changing his style of football and improving. I don’t know if he’ll remain with us next season, as it depends on results.”
There are still some lingering concerns over Balotelli’s temperament and character. Nice manager Lucien Favre, for instance, questioned the Italian’s commitment after last week’s 1-1 home draw with Rennes, criticising his lack of movement and desire. And this isn’t the first time Favre has made such remarks. From time to time, Balotelli momentarily reverts to default. But unlike before, he has shown the resolve to recover from his mistakes. That at least shows some personal growth.
If there is a narrative to be drawn from this season’s Premier League it’s that players, even those of the higher calibre, aren’t always as predictable as often like to pretend. England’s two best players at present were both cast aside earlier in their careers, deemed to be ill-equipped at the top level of the Premier League. Now, Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah are setting the standard for the rest to follow.
Of course, Balotelli has spurned many more chances than either De Bruyne or Salah had, and at 27 he is at a later stage of his career. However, there is no set age, no set point, at which players mature or reach their potential as professionals. Jamie Vardy is testament to that. Some have been too hasty in ringing the death knell on Balotelli’s top level career.
Balotelli could be held aloft as an example of the destructive nature of the modern game and the negative impact it can have on young men who are unprepared for the demands that are made of them. Balotelli made mistakes earlier in his career, but he was failed by those around him who should have ensured he had some sort of support system.
So bereft was Balotelli of this support system during his time at Manchester City, manager Roberto Mancini even publicly implored him to get married. “It could be that marriage would help him,” he said, as if making his vows would somehow cure all the ills in his life.
Now, though, Balotelli appears comfortable in his own skin, and more importantly, his own mind. In his own words, “I’ve matured, I'm 27 and I have two children. The time for [messing around with] girls has long gone.” Mancini will be pleased.
Some have suggested that Balotelli could find himself in the USA this summer, with DC United keen to make the Italian a big money signing. In the States, he would find somewhere willing to embrace him, to champion him.
On a personal level, it might be a good option for him. He would be comfortable there. But Balotelli has given himself a chance to make up for lost time at the top of the sport and it would be difficult to do that in MLS, despite the league’s growth over the past decade or so.
There will still be an element of risk attached to any move for Balotelli this summer. But with that risk might come reward. The third act of football’s most enigmatic enfant terrible could be his most captivating yet.
Far from finished, this might be when we finally see him at his best. If Balotelli vows to have changed upon signing for his next club, as he has done before, there might be reason to believe him.