Mario Balotelli is back, again. Three years after his last spell in Serie A with Milan that ended in a solitary goal from 20 games, Italy’s prodigal son has returned. This homecoming is a little different, as he’s returned to where the Balotelli story began, to Brescia.
Whilst similar words have echoed before, this really is the last chance saloon for Balotelli. Half a decade of fluctuating productivity whilst bouncing around various clubs in Italy, England and France has done little to improve his waning reputation. Mario hasn’t been super in a long time.
Balotelli is conscious of the fact that time is very much of the essence. It doesn’t seem that long ago that he was once regarded as Italy’s next great hitman. A Champions League winner at 19, he seemingly had the world at his feet, and we all know what happened in the intervening years.
Sitting on 36 caps, many believed Balotelli would’ve achieved double the amount by the time of his 29th birthday. Yet since the debacle at the 2014 World Cup in which the very worst of Balotelli’s character emerged, he’s won a paltry three caps. Even these were due more to the ascension of mentor Roberto Mancini to the Azzurri throne than any meritocratic form on Balotelli’s part. He didn’t play a single game for Italy in nearly four years.
With Euro 2020 on the horizon, Balotelli knows a solid season with The Little Swallows will almost guarantee him a seat at the table. Whilst he was persona non grata under Antonio Conte and Gian Piero Ventura’s Italy reigns, Balotelli has admitted that with Mancini in charge, the onus is now firmly on him.
The move is reminiscent of almost two decades ago, when Roberto Baggio made the same move in September 2000. Baggio, like Balotelli, was out of contract, after a disastrous spell at Inter had cost him his place in the national team. And like Balo, Baggio had rejected the attractive glances of exotic destinations in order to remain not just in the public consciousness, but also in the mind of then Italy boss Giovanni Trapattoni ahead of the 2002 World Cup.
Baggio stayed for four years and ultimately became the club’s greatest player. He became the leader of the locker room and added yet another chapter to a career that was almost abandoned too many times. Ultimately Baggio never made it to another major tournament, yet this era of the club is defined as ‘Baggio’s Brescia’.
Balotelli now finds himself in similar circumstances. Indeed, the stage is almost set for Balotelli to mimic Baggio in a way, the chance to become a locker room leader and to harness his experiences, both good and bad, to the betterment of a side that is for the most part lacking in top-flight familiarity.
The signing of Balotelli is a major coup for Brescia, regardless of his current standing in the game. Massimo Cellino is taking full advantage of the new tax breaks in Italy that are designed to stop the ‘brain drain’ of the country’s greatest minds and to entice Italians to return. Balotelli’s €3m net salary would’ve cost Brescia double that had he signed a year ago. Fiorentina have also made use of the new law in bringing Franck Ribery to Florence.
The Balotelli stardust has the potential, should Brescia avoid relegation this season, to bring in further stars. Pep Guardiola famously chose to join Brescia in 2001 because he wanted to play alongside Baggio. Whilst Balotelli doesn’t possess the Baggio magnetism, his presence wouldn’t hurt the club’s pulling power.
With Mancini now casting a permanent eye over proceedings at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti, and with his Italy side finding it difficult to score goals amidst the inconsistencies of Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile, the pressure is now on Balotelli’s shoulders to remind everyone that when he’s focused, he’s the best they have.
Can Mario be super again?