On the night of 28 June, 2012, it looked as though the penny had finally dropped. The previous five years of his career had been dominated by tantrums, petulance and controversy, but Mario Balotelli had just produced the performance that should have make the world take him seriously.
The scene was the National Stadium in Warsaw, Poland, and Balotelli’s Italy had just beaten Germany 2-1 in the Euro 2012 semi-finals. Balotelli had scored both of his country’s goals in one of the most iconic individual performances in European Championship history.
Balotelli’s misdemeanours are well documented, and can be found elsewhere. What is obvious is that the years before this performance had suggested that Balotelli was something special, and a talent worth persevering with; despite the erratic behaviour on and off the pitch. He had made his breakthrough at Inter Milan, where he scored 20 goals in 59 Serie A games, most of them under the management of Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini, two noted authoritarians.
Balotelli then followed Mancini to Manchester City, where he scored a total of 20 goals in 54 Premier League games. He also played a key role in undoubtedly the most famous goal in Premier League history – claiming the assist for Sergio Aguero’s stoppage-time winner against QPR to win Man City their first Premier League title in the most dramatic of circumstances.
His career before the match was hugely promising, and Italy’s victory over Germany should have been the game which confirmed Balotelli’s status as one of Europe’s best strikers. Instead, it looks as though it may be the crowning moment of his career, arriving at the age of just 22. Unfortunately for him, and the clubs which have invested so heavily in him, that penny didn’t, and may never, drop.
His City career nosedived after the tournament, and just six months later he was sold to AC Milan, with Mancini describing the move as being for the good of the player. Two years later he was back in England, with Liverpool, and that is where his career plummeted still further.
Eyebrows were raised when Brendan Rodgers chose to spend £16 million on the controversial striker, particularly as he was seen as a replacement for the Barcelona-bound Luis Suarez. Suarez’s game consists of relentless energy, whereas Balotelli’s languid approach to football couldn’t be more different.
It seemed almost inevitable that the move would backfire, and that is exactly what happened. One league goal in 16 matches saw Balotelli discarded after just one season, sent back on loan to Milan last summer. What is more, he had been dropped by Antonio Conte, the new Italy manager.
The striker’s return to Milan seemed like one final throw of the dice, one final opportunity for Balotelli to prove that that night in Poland wasn’t a one off, but a demonstration of his true talent. He was back home for the 2015-16 season, in the city where he had enjoyed some of the best days of his career (albeit most of them with Inter), and with the motivation to help revive Milan’s fortunes and earn his place back in the Italy squad.
Balotelli scored just one goal in 20 Serie A games last season. There was no suggestion of Milan keeping him, so he has returned to Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp has made it clear to him that he is unwanted. The Liverpool manager said, “There will be a club around who would be happy to have the new Mario Balotelli. I have spoken clearly to the player about that”.
It isn’t hard to see why Klopp is so keen to move Balotelli on. The Italian’s statistics for last season compare unfavourably with Liverpool’s other strikers – Christian Benteke, Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino (Danny Ings has been ignored, as he was injured for most of last season).
Balotelli had a worse pass completion rate than all of Liverpool’s strikers but Benteke, and registered fewer goals and assists per game than any of Liverpool’s other forwards. He also had a worse shot accuracy and, unsurprisingly, racked up more yellow cards than the rest of Liverpool’s strikers put together.
This is all despite Jurgen Klopp’s strikers being less than prolific. Benteke is headed for the exit after just one season, Sturridge was regularly injured, Origi is young and rarely started, and Firmino is more of an attacking midfielder. The fact that Balotelli was outplayed by all of them makes 2015-16 arguably the worst season of his career.
It’s hard to know exactly what has caused this prolonged slump in Balotelli’s career. The most likely explanation is a combination of his marginalisation at Anfield – Rodgers signed him but never seemed to want to use him – and the poor form displayed by both Liverpool and Milan displayed during his time there. Balotelli isn’t the kind of player who will thrive in a struggling team.
So where now for Mario? It seems impossible to think that any club in England would have him, given his past and his wage demands. Another return to Italy could be an option, and Sampdoria have registered their interest, but none of the top clubs will touch him. Given their recent entry into the transfer market, a move to China seems most likely. Balotelli’s reputation would certainly appeal to their cash-rich clubs.
A move to China would promise millions in wages and the chance of a fresh start. But it wasn’t meant to be this way. Four years ago, it seemed as though Mario Balotelli was announcing his true talent. Now, we wonder if there is any talent there at all.