Lazio v Nice: Attention-seeking Mario Balotelli trying to catch the eye of Italy manager Giampiero Ventura
Italian striker has never been too far way from a headline but his football has done the talking since his move to France.
Why never him? Mario Balotelli is entitled to ask. The serial attention-seeker, who as a younger, apparently more restless man, wore a T-shirt with the words ‘Why Always Me?’ across its chest, is feeling ignored. At least from a place that matters to him.
And he is not alone for wondering if his country, Italy, is not becoming a little too stubbornly indifferent to the virtues of one of the game’s most enigmatic individuals.
Balotelli arrived in Rome on Wednesday as the leading goalscorer for his club, Nice, who on Thursday meet Lazio in Europa League contest where a victory for either side might carry qualification for the next phase.
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The Italy manager, Giampiero Ventura, who this weekend names his squad for the World Cup playoffs against Sweden, will certainly keep a close eye on the fixture, although his chief concern will be that Lazio striker Ciro Immobile, Serie A’s top marksman, comes to no harm.
Balotelli has not represented Italy since June 2014, when he came home with a humbled Italy after the group phase of the World Cup. He had scored the winning goal, against England, in their only triumph in Brazil but had left a poor impression on some around the squad.
Antonio Conte, Italy’s manager from 2014 to 2016, called him up just once, an appointment he was unable to keep because of injury. Ventura has not been in touch at all in the last 15 months.
“I have nothing against him,” Ventura said of Balotelli as Italy, finishing behind Spain, completed their group-stage qualifiers for Russia 2018. “But what counts is what a player brings to the group, the qualities of sacrifice and giving to the team.”
You might very well read into that a suggestion that, with Balotelli, there is a lingering suspicion that, for the man who wonders out loud, Why Always Me, it is too often All About Me.
At Nice, the club with a glamorous address on France’s Mediterranean coast but not much pedigree compared to Inter Milan, Manchester City, AC Milan or Liverpool, previous stop-offs in his hopscotch career, Balotelli’s outsized star quality has worked out surprisingly well.
He arrived there on a free transfer from Liverpool where he had become unloved, ineffective and a burden. The limelight trailed him, as he encourages it to, but the gifts that made the teenaged Balotelli so invigorating to watch blossomed. His period in Ligue 1, where Nice finished third last May, has been among the most satisfying of his varied career.
Yes, there have been controversies, but they have not exasperated his employers as much as his reckless diversions off the path of orthodoxy did at Inter or at City, where Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini, his managers at each of those, lost patience.
And set before Ventura, criticised for Italy’s insipid displays of late, is the evidence that Balotelli, who turned 27 in August, is approaching peak form. Not since a charmed spell, when he joined Milan from City at the end of 2012, has he performed so consistently as a goalscorer.
His Nice manager Lucien Fabre has praised his unselfishness, too, detecting growing maturity in his football. Balotelli scored 17 goals for Nice in 2016-17, and has five in his last six league outings this term. Those are Super Mario sized stats and achieved in a Nice team suffering a severe bout of vertigo, struggling towards the wrong end of the France's Ligue 1.
In Europe, where they sit second to Lazio in their group, Nice have been a little more robust. A Balotelli goal put them into the lead in the home game against the Italians two weeks ago, though Lazio’s three in response established the Serie A club's command of the group.
Some points to be made then, at a Stadio Olimpico where Balotelli has mixed memories. He has been racially abused from the stands there, in his time as a Serie A player. He has been the catalyst for great comebacks in Roma for Inter and for Milan.
Now to encourage compatriots to at least keep talking about the comeback he longs for, to Italy's blue jersey.
Updated: November 1, 2017 05:22 PM