Roberto Mancini, Italy's post-apocalypse firefighter, turns to Mario Balotelli to help lead new era
Four-time world champions failed to qualify for the tournament in Russia, and the former Inter Milan and Manchester City manager is tasked with the rebuilding process
Roberto Mancini said his goodbyes to Russia in the middle of May, his last match in charge of Zenit Saint-Petersburg a 6-0 win.
He was thanked for his efforts and the stadium he had briefly called home set about dressing itself up for something bigger, the World Cup. Mancini’s next employers, very conspicuously, would not be there. That still hurts.
Mancini was offered the job of coaching a dispirited Italy after the country’s greatest fall from grace for perhaps 60 years. It had been that long since they failed to reach a World Cup, and if there was a genuine sense of loss even beyond the country's borders that a great football nation, four times world champions, were not going to be in Russia, it was soon forgotten.
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It was a splendid tournament. As Mancini, the man given responsibility for Italy’s renaissance, watched events remotely, he noted that not too many people were busy mourning the fact Italy weren’t part of the entertainment.
Mancini will take charge of his first competitive international in Bologna on Friday night, a European Nations League fixture against Poland, and his stated mission is to "make Italians fall in love with their football team again".
His own patriotism is clear, beneath the rather cool exterior that tends to be his mask when facing the cameras. Mancini made 36 Italy appearances as a player. As a manager led Inter Milan to a first Serie A title in 18 years, and Manchester City to the summit of English football after four decades without a league crown. He could have landed more lucrative contracts than the Italian Football Federation's. But coaching Italy is something he has always aspired to.
His credentials certainly trump those of his predecessor, Gian Piero Ventura, whose long career boasts a Serie C title and now the indignity of having overseen 180 minutes of a World Cup play-off against Sweden without being able to coax a single goal from his Italy players.
The head of the Federation called Italy’s failure to reach Russia “an apocalypse”. That makes Mancini - 'Mancio' to his friends - their post-apocalypse firefighter.
Intriguingly, his chosen allies for the task include a well-known amateur arsonist. Up front for Italy on Friday should be Mario Balotelli, whose hefty portfolio of past misdemeanours include the notorious episode when a fireworks night at his then Manchester home went wrong, causing damage to the property.
It was the following day that Balotelli scored a goal for Manchester City and, referencing his habit of making off-field headlines, revealed the T-shirt that asked "Why Always Me?"
That was seven years ago, when Balotelli was only 21 and testing the faith of Mancini, who had brought him to City from Inter, on a tiresomely regular basis.
There were the repeated training-ground bust-ups, the excess of red cards, and eventually too much strain on a relationship that goes back a long way. It was Mancini, at Inter, who gave Balotelli his first senior start, aged 17. No manager has believed in Super Mario as deeply as Mancio.
Certainly, no Italy manager of the past four years has. Balotelli, now 28, has seen his club career sink and soar dramatically since, with Mancini at City, he won the 2012 Premier League.
There was a brief high at AC Milan, troughs at Liverpool and Milan, and then an apparent resurrection at Nice, where he plays now, although he had a disruptive summer during which a transfer to Marseille seemed likely.
Some Italians remain sceptical of Balotelli's capacity for consistency, though in the later period of Ventura’s troubled reign, others did ask, as he found form in France’s Ligue 1: "Why never him?"
Balotelli’s last competitive outing for Italy was in Brazil in the last World Cup finals, under Cesare Prandelli. Three managers since - Antonio Conte, who called him up once, but the player withdrew injured; Ventura; and the caretaker Luigi di Biago - elected not to add to his 35 caps.
Mancini called him immediately, while bemoaning the limited options available to any Italian manager, at least from a Serie A where foreign footballers have lately been taking up an average of more than seven of the starting places in club sides.
Balotelli has so far responded. He scored his first Italy goal since 2014 in a May friendly, Mancini’s first game in charge, against Saudi Arabia.
“What I want to see is the Balotelli of Euro 2012”, Mancini said. That tournament, where Italy were beaten finalists, was a high point for the then young striker, bold, quick and lethal in front of goal. Mancini might just be the man to rediscover that version of Super Mario.
Updated: September 6, 2018 02:52 PM