He answered the question straight away: Yes, we will see him playing again in the Premier League. In his first interview with FourFourTwo magazine, Mario Balotelli made it clear that he missed the fans. Not the food or the weather or the press, or driving on the left side of the road.
He misses the atmosphere, and he says he feels proudest when “I do something important on the pitch.” In the stadiums around England, at the Etihad with Manchester City, on trains to the game, the people sang his name. Nowhere else have fans celebrated him more.
But the question is simple: Why would Balotelli like to play again in the Premier League? He won every important domestic title with Manchester City. The media pestered him. Balotelli explained to FourFourTwo:
In England they always seemed to want to make up stuff about my private life … They would talk about my family, which really isn’t on at all. I don’t mind being criticised in the press if I’m not playing well—of course I don’t—but I think that the big problem in England is that they have to exaggerate everything all the time, whether it’s an argument in training or something that happens off the pitch.
That is not to say it is any better in Italy. Balotelli posted a picture of himself on Twitter holding a pingpong paddle, and journalists went crazy. "For you this is news,” manager Clarence Seedorf said in a press conference. “That is a sad thing. What makes for news in Italy is a worry to me.”
Then there is the racism. On more than one occasion, Balotelli has put his finger to his lips to shush the racist crowds hurling insults at him. One match last year was actually suspended, though only briefly. On the other hand, there is his nonsense: Balotelli smiling wide after the 4-1 loss to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, exchanging shirts with Diego Costa.
And he still does stupid things. He was late to practice several times and shoved a cameraman after he arrived with the Italian national team in Naples this past October. The man was shooting for Sport Mediaset, the company owned by Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi. His captain is right: Riccardo Montolivo said Balotelli “has to realize that he’s almost 24. Even though he is improving, he has to mature on his own.”
This season has little meaning left for Milan, and Balotelli hasn’t done enough. He has collected almost as many yellow cards (11) as goals (13) this season. He went 552 minutes without a goal. But this is all new to him: a full season as a starter. He has played more games so far this season than any other in his career, and there are 11 games left in Serie A.
When he first came to Milan in January 2013 Balotelli scored 12 goals in 13 games, but it was something of a boom. He was new and fresh to the scene and living close to his parents, who live in Brescia. He was unencumbered. He was scoring. He was back.
Now the expectations are there. He is supposed to be the best player on a weak team. He is supposed to work harder. He can change the story of a game in one moment. Sometimes he does nothing before that. We lose patience. He gets suspended (Balotelli has lost seven games to suspensions over the past year).
The difference is that he has another good teacher to follow. Balotelli had his spats with Roberto Mancini, but Seedorf backs up his players. “I didn’t say Mario isn’t a champion,” Seedorf told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia), “but that he will become a champion. I believe in him a great deal and I believe in the man he is becoming.”
And it is not just words of encouragement coming from the new manager. According to Italian source Milan News, Balotelli scored at 91 km/h from almost 30 yards away against Bologna, which won the game. He was leaving the pitch at the end, straight for the exits, until Seedorf told him to go shake hands.
It’s the little things. Balotelli has the right coach. When Balotelli broke down in tears, Seedorf saw nothing wrong with that. He didn’t judge his player. Seedorf only said what was true. “He too needs to grow in general,” the manager told Sky Sport Italia (h/t Football Italia). “I’m happy he has so many areas to improve, as I can help him through that education.”
Seedorf believes in Balotelli without indulging him. Mancini didn’t do that. To a certain extent, Cesare Prandelli, coach of the Azzurri, was a little too lenient on Balotelli, saying he needs "a lot of love," per Reuters.
Prandelli also likes to uphold his code of ethics, as he did not think much of excluding Balotelli when he was sent off against Arsenal before the Euro Cup. But according to Italian paper La Gezzetta dello Sport, Prandelli said on Wednesday that no one aside from Gianluigi Buffon has secured a place in the squad for the World Cup—not even Mario. He claimed all others are under observation and that Mario is entitled to nothing.
It is Seedorf who can coax the best out of this player. Moving now would only serve to disrupt the fragile state of his career (and maybe Balotelli should rid himself of an agent like Mino Raiola, who likes to shuffle his clients to make the most money).
Everywhere else Balotelli has gone, he has won. Not at Milan. Not yet.
Maybe he will leave if Milan no longer want him. Maybe in the summer, if they receive a huge offer, Milan will let him go.
But why would he want to leave? He has the support. He has his parents close by. He has a baby who he now knows is his. His life is in Italy.
Mario needs an identity. He can't keep moving.