Volatile mixes with the vibrant as Mario Balotelli arrives at Marseille
Marseille's fans are demanding but the club need goals, and the Italian striker will be under pressure to shake off his poor scoring form
A jokey Mario Balotelli finally arrived, some six months later than anticipated, at the seventh club of his storied professional career on Wednesday. He kidded with reporters gathered at Olympique Marseille that he expected to line up at centre-back.
Some interpreted that as a self-deprecating commentary by the striker on his recent scoring record. He added, more seriously, he is not focused as much on the number of goals he might register in the Marseille No 9 jersey as the wider contribution he can make to reviving the club's substandard campaign.
After all, this is a club that regards itself as, at the very least, mighty enough to act as the leading chaser in France’s Ligue 1 of Paris Saint-Germain.
Signing Balotelli, still only 28 years old but with a hefty back catalogue of anecdotes about indiscipline as well as brilliance and bravery, is always deemed a risk. Marseille have taken it, but limited their liabilities to a six-month deal, for which he will be handsomely paid - a basic of €4 million (Dh16.7m).
He also hopes he will emerge with reputation restored as one of the most naturally gifted strikers of his era.
There has not been much sign of that lately. Balotelli’s last league goal was scored in May 2018, the month in which, recalled by Italy, he played his first international in four years. Back then, he was on a high.
Nice, where he was completing a second season, had apparently become a happy home for a footballer with itinerant habits: He had scored 43 goals in 66 matches for the Riviera club, a better ratio - allbeit in a slightly less competitive league - than his record in Serie A, with Inter Milan and AC Milan, or in England, with Manchester City and at Liverpool, where he spent the least fulfilling chapter of a topsy-turvy career.
To look back over all those stints, in the blue and red of Lombardy and the all-red and the sky-blue of Lancashire, is to see that three seasons anywhere seems a little too long for restless Super Mario. His third season at City lasted six months, by which time his relationship with Roberto Mancini, his manager - now in charge of Italy - had frayed.
His first 18 months with AC Milan were inspiring; his return there, after a poor season at Liverpool, for a third season was disappointing and flat.
The same at Nice, where season No 3 in their red-and-black stripes began with much talk of moving to Marseille. The transfer did not happen in August and Balotelli, showing symptoms of poor fitness, lumbered through 10 goalless matches before his new manager at Nice, his former Inter and City colleague Patrick Vieira, lost patience.
He has moved along the coast on a free transfer. His new home may provide the stimulation he had lost at Nice.
“This is a great place to play, with a great support,” Balotelli said at his unveiling, “and I think am a bit like the people of Marseille.”
Certainly, there are the ingredients of an interesting marriage: Balotelli’s charisma and flair meets the Mediterranean’s most volatile and vibrant port city.
But Marseille’s loyalists are demanding and the urge to see Balotelli as a saviour already feels oppressive. The club needs goals. Valere Germain and Kostas Mitroglou, the senior centre-forwards, have netted just three each in Ligue 1 this season.
OM, last May’s Europa League finalists, sit in seventh place in the table and 22 points behind leaders PSG. They are nine shy of the second spot they aspire to, which is currently occupied by Lille, who visit the Velodrome on Friday night.
Balotelli will be cheered enthusiastically on the evening, although he will not be in the starting line-up. He is short of match fitness, having played his last match for Nice in early December. This leaves 17 Ligue 1 games to make his case, to launch his latest comeback.
His target? Balotelli was unusually coy. “Scoring goals is not life or death,” he said.
But he would certainly feel relieved to remind himself how it feels to score one.
Updated: January 25, 2019 08:28 AM