Mario Balotelli: Is It Time for Italy to Move on Without the Milan Striker?

Paolo BandiniSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 25, 2014

NATAL, BRAZIL - JUNE 24:  Mario Balotelli of Italy reacts during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group D match between Italy and Uruguay at Estadio das Dunas on June 24, 2014 in Natal, Brazil.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

The resignations of Cesare Prandelli and Giancarlo Abete have left a void at the top of Italian football that may take some time to fill. Speculation has already begun over the identity of the manager’s successor, but no new appointment can be made until a replacement has first been found for Abete—the president of the national federation.

Neither process should be rushed. The new appointments will face considerable challenges as Italian football undergoes a generational shift.

Andrea Pirlo is yet to make a statement regarding his anticipated international retirement, but he was reported by Mediaset to have confirmed it to team-mates in the wake of Tuesday’s tournament-ending loss to Uruguay (story in Italian). He had suggested before the start of this World Cup that it would be the last time he represented his country (full quotes via Reuters). 

Gigi Buffon intends to continue for a little while longer, but the goalkeeper will be 40 years old by the time the next World Cup rolls around. After a promising performance from Salvatore Sirigu against England, some fans believe it is time to start the succession process. 

But the trickiest question facing the incoming manager might the same one that has flummoxed coaches from Manchester to Milan. Namely: How to solve a problem like Mario Balotelli?

The striker was a disappointment in Brazil, scoring his team’s winning goal against England but failing to make any real impact thereafter. He wasted the Azzurri’s best chance in their defeat to Costa Rica, badly misjudging a chip after being put clean through by Pirlo.  

Booked twice in three games, he would have missed Italy’s last-16 tie had they progressed. Prandelli seemed to have lost patience with him in any case, withdrawing the striker at half-time against Uruguay with the scores still level at 0-0. 

There were claims, as reported by the Italian state broadcaster Rai, that Balotelli had responded poorly to criticism of his performance during the interval, prompting the manager to make this substitution earlier than he had originally intended.

Petr David Josek/Associated Press

Comments left by team-mates after the Uruguay game sounded like indirect criticisms of the striker. Buffon defended Italy’s older players by suggesting that they had done their duty even while some younger ones did not. Daniele De Rossi said (quotes in Italian, from both players, via La Repubblica) that the national side needed “real men,” not “characters or figurines.” 

Neither named Balotelli personally, and there is always a danger in reading too much between the lines.

But one way or another, the Milan striker was certainly beginning to feel persecuted. He lashed out against his critics in a lengthy post on Instagram, in which he suggested that he had once again been the target for racist abuse by some fans. 

The post contained a video of an unidentified man telling Balotelli that he was not really an Italian. The striker began his response by reminding everyone that he was born in Italy and cared deeply about representing his country. Acknowledging his mistake against Costa Rica, he then insisted that he would not be made a scapegoat for Italian failures when he knew he had tried his hardest. 

The angry tone of his post was in stark contrast to those he had been making on social media just a few days before. On 16 June, he had posted a picture of a completed Panini sticker book in which his own likeness filled up every spot in the Italy squad. Three days later, he used Twitter to demand a kiss from the Queen if Italy beat Costa Rica.   

In many ways, the shift felt like a neat microcosm of Balotelli’s career to date. Few players veer so readily between exuberant highs and bleak lows.

Prandelli was better than most at managing the player’s eccentricities. He went all in on Balotelli from day one, using his first game in charge of Italy to hand the striker his international debut. From there, the manager would seek to build a team around this most precocious of talents. For a long time it worked, Balotelli famously firing Italy past Germany in the semi-finals of Euro 2012.

There were hiccups along the way, with the player falling foul more than once of Prandelli’s ethical code. He was dropped on three separate occasions as a punishment for acts of indiscipline with his club teams (details, in Italian, on Yahoo). But he was still Italy’s top goalscorer in qualifying for this World Cup, despite missing five of their 10 games. 

It is a statistic that ought to give any new incoming manager serious pause for thought. All of a sudden, Italy have found themselves with an abundance of options up front, with a host of talented younger forwards emergingfrom Ciro Immobile through to Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi.

None of those players, however, has proved themselves yet at the international level. Immobile, indeed, was a great disappointment when finally thrust into the starting line-up against Uruguay. He deserves more opportunities, of course. But so does Balotelli.

It is easy to forget that the Milan striker is still only 23younger than Immobile and only the same age as both Insigne and Destro. Just as the Italian Football Federation must not be too hasty with the crucial appointments that lay ahead of them, their nation should not rush to judgement on a player whose best years almost certainly still are ahead of him.