Nice Job: How Mario Balotelli Got His Mojo Back in the South of France

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 30, 2018

Nice's Italian forward Mario Balotelli celebrates after scoring a second goal during the UEFA Europa League football match between Nice and Lokomotiv Moscow on February 15, 2018, at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice, southeastern France.  / AFP PHOTO / VALERY HACHE        (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

Mario Balotelli has been making the headlines in France of late, but not in the manner you might expect.

There have been no impromptu firework shows, no city-centre air-gun displays, no unauthorised prison visits, no spectacular training-ground fights with coaches and team-mates. No press conferences have been gate-crashed. No youth-team players have suddenly found themselves sheltering from a hail of darts.

Instead, he has been scoring goals at a rate like never before.

Balotelli scored 15 goals in 23 Ligue 1 games for OGC Nice last season and has registered 14 in 21 games to date in the current campaign, figures bettered only by Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao and Florian Thauvin. He has scored more league goals for Nice than he did for any of his previous clubs, and he recently became the club's leading scorer (article in French) in the 21st century.

Nice soared in Balotelli's debut season, finishing third to record their highest finish in over 40 years, but even though they have fallen back this term following a raft of departures last summer—presently sitting eighth in the standings—Balotelli has continued to find the net. He has also taken on greater importance: Lucien Favre's side have won only one of the 14 games in which he has not played.

Less than two years after being ushered out of the back door at Liverpool following an underwhelming season-long loan at AC Milan, Balotelli is being tipped to join a major European club in the summer, and there have been suggestions he should be recalled by Italy. So where did it all go right?

The list of Balotelli's off-field controversies is almost rivalled in length by the list of managers who have been unable to get the best out of him. Roberto Mancini, Jose Mourinho, Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp are among the men who have been reduced to banging their heads against their desks in frustration over their inability to coax effective performances from a player for whom the prefix "wayward" might as well have been coined.

Favre, the highly regarded Swiss coach who joined Nice a few months before Balotelli in 2016, has succeeded where so many have failed in part because the striker came under his care at a time when he had nowhere left to turn.

Favre has succeeded with Balotelli where others have failed.
Favre has succeeded with Balotelli where others have failed.VALERY HACHE/Getty Images

"Favre has had success with Balotelli because Balotelli had reached the point of no return," William Humberset said, reporting on Balotelli's time at Nice for regional newspaper Nice-Matin. "To fail at big clubs like Liverpool or AC Milan is one thing, but if he'd failed at Nice, a little club in France in a league that appeared pretty easy for him, it would have been over."

Favre and Balotelli have always seemed unlikely bedfellows. Favre prizes hard work and industry, whereas Balotelli is notoriously reluctant to follow orders, but both have taken steps in each other's direction for the good of the team. Balotelli has displayed greater application in training and in matches, while Favre has shown a degree of lenience toward his striker on account of his valuable prowess in front of goal.

Favre has not been afraid to criticise Balotelli. He lambasted him after Nice were knocked out of the Champions League by Napoli in August, stating baldly that his No. 9 "didn't work hard enough" and "wasn't in the game." Balotelli has not held back either, as demonstrated by an amusing anecdote that Nice centre-back Dante shared during an interview with SFR Sport (in French) last month.

"The coach says things. He doesn't mess around," Dante said. "'Mario, if you don't run, you won't play for me anymore!' It was pretty tense. Mario replied: 'Then go and buy Usain Bolt!' But Mario is a good guy."

Balotelli told the Nice website (in French) in October that he was touched by Favre's insistence that he be kept at the club last summer and also gave a revealing answer when asked what he would say if he were the person coaching Balotelli.

"I'd try to limit the compliments that I paid him," Balotelli said. "And I'd try to break his balls a bit, because I know myself: When everything's going well, it's a problem. When someone stands on my feet a bit, I get annoyed, and then I do a bit more. I need people to talk about my mistakes more than what I do well. Because you learn from your mistakes."

Balotelli has not always been an entirely popular changing-room presence, but at Nice he appears to have formed genuine bonds with his (predominantly younger) team-mates.

La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Le Buzz) reported he spent €15,000 on gifts for his new colleagues following his arrival on transfer deadline day in August 2016. He has taken to celebrating goals with greater abandon than in his earlier days as well, eschewing his customary stock-still stance and scowl for more exuberant manifestations of joy with team-mates, such as strike partner Alassane Plea and young winger Allan Saint-Maximin.

Significantly, Balotelli is also content off the pitch. He fathered his first son in September when his partner, Clelia, gave birth to a little boy called Lion (yes, Lion). He also has a five-year-old daughter, Pia, from a previous relationship. In a recent television interview on Italia Uno, Balotelli credited Clelia, who is reported to be a bank worker and part-time model, with helping him to find peace.

Balotelli has looked happy on and off the pitch at Nice.
Balotelli has looked happy on and off the pitch at Nice.VALERY HACHE/Getty Images

"The secret behind the consistency that I've found? I've found peace at home with someone," he said (via, in Italian). "The secret is at home. In the last few years, I no longer have the physical problems that I had and my performances are better, but the peace is at home and not at work."

The peace in Balotelli's home life is mirrored in the tranquillity that he has found in Nice, where, much like Hatem Ben Arfa before him, the lack of scrutiny on his behaviour has helped him to focus all his efforts on the pitch.

"The national press rarely takes an interest in OGC Nice, so there's no media pressure or overexposure. He knew that he'd only be judged on what he did on the pitch," Humberset said.

"He was the 'enfant terrible' of Italian football, but over two years he's shown how much talent he has. Balotelli is winning the gamble he made when he came to Nice, and Nice too."

Balotelli, who turns 28 in August, has not played for his country since he was hauled off at half-time of the 1-0 loss to Uruguay that sealed Italy's elimination from the 2014 FIFA World Cup (a game best remembered for the coming-together of Luis Suarez's teeth and Giorgio Chiellini's left shoulder).

Could a recall for Italy be on the horizon?
Could a recall for Italy be on the horizon?Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

But his goals for Nice, such as a blistering strike at Rennes that recalled his bullet against Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-finals, have brought him back into the conversation. After his agent, Mino Raiola, hit out at interim coach Luigi Di Biagio on Radio 24 (h/t Daily Mail) for overlooking him for the latest round of international matches, Azzurri captain Gianluigi Buffon told Tiki Taka (via Sport Mediaset, in Italian) that Balotelli "deserved" to return to the national fold.

Regarding his club future, Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivere conceded to RMC Sport (in French) that Balotelli is "likely" to leave this summer. Balotelli declared himself "ready" to return to Italy in an interview with Domenica Sportiva (via Rai Sport, in Italian) and talked up a move to either Juventus or Napoli, while Raiola told Calcio & Mercato (via Rai Sport, in Italian) that he is already in talks with "many clubs in England and Italy."

Should he succeed in engineering a move to one of Europe's major clubs, Balotelli will have to prove he is capable of thriving in a changing room where he is not the only star and can cope with the constant scrutiny that accompanies life within the walls of an elite institution.

Ben Arfa's disappearance from view at Paris Saint-Germain following his own Nice renaissance represents a cautionary tale. But two years after leaving England under a cloud, and against all expectations, Balotelli looks to have earned himself one last shot at the big time.


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