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From Rafa to Mario, talent will out

Long deemed "unmanageable", Mario Balotelli might be the man to rescue Italy's World Cup qualification

Mario Balotelli: his own man. Photo: Claudio Villa/Getty

Last weekend in Melbourne, tennis reminded us what true sport felt like before the pandemic. Full houses, engaged crowds and champions Ash Barty and Rafa Nadal giving heart, soul and mind.

By Monday morning, soccer was back to the grubby business of last-minute buying and selling of human potential like chattels in the final hours of the January transfer window.

Arsenal had decided that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, its captain and talisman six months ago, was no longer fit for purpose. Manager Mikel Arteta travelled to the USA to tell club owner Stan Kroenke that he could not
trust the Gabon striker anywhere near his dressing room, and Kroenke agreed that the fallen idol had to go.

But who would pay Aubameyang’s £350,000 weekly wage? As Sunday turned into Monday we heard of three bidders. The Saudi clubs, Al-Nasr and Al Hilal would take him. But Auba, 32, wanted to stay relevant, to stay in Europe. FC Barcelona emerged as a third suitor.

Didn’t Barça go bankrupt last year? Wasn’t the game up? To such an extent that the Catalans released Lionel Messi to Paris St Germain because they could no longer afford to pay him? Should we now believe that Barcelona has found pots of money to pay (or promise to pay) whatever it takes to employ Aubameyang?

On the pitch Auba is capable, still, of scoring goals that few players on earth have the athleticism, the imagination, the sixth sense, to conjure up. He marches to his own tune, tends to turn up when it suits him, and Arteta determined that it would be better to fill his shirt with anyone, even unproven teenagers, willing to buy into the team and not the star philosophy.

Time, and the Kroenke paymasters, will be the judge of that.

But time is not the best friend of athletes. Nadal coming back to win the Australian Open six months after foot surgery demonstrated the extreme self-sacrifice, the breathtaking will, to overcome, although he acknowledged that his triumph came in the absence of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Perhaps there is a comeback story of even greater proportions in football. Mario Balotelli is back, or is potentially back, in the Italian fold.

At 31, he is the equal and more of Aubameyang when it comes to pace, athleticism and instinct. Last week, out of nowhere, Balotelli took part in three days of training by Italy’s Azzurri in preparation for a World Cup play-off against North Macedonia this spring.

Yes, Italy, European champions six months ago, could fail to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The head coach Roberto Mancini, a striker in his day, has no reliable goalscorer to call upon. He has even lost Federico Chiesa, a match-winning winger last summer, to a knee injury.

The Azzurri know how to control matches but up front they can be impotent. Mancini knows one player who can score unworldly goals – knows him well because Mancini managed Balotelli at Inter Milan and Manchester City.

Although nobody truly “manages” Balotelli. His career bounces around like a helium balloon at sea. José Mourinho once cast Super Mario out of training camp, describing him as “unmanageable”.

Lovable to a degree, but unmanageable. In the course of one memorable long weekend in Manchester, Balotelli staged a party at home in which a friend set off fireworks in his bathroom, causing a reported £400,000 of damage. The next day the striker scored twice as City demolished United in the Manchester derby, then lifted up his sky blue shirt to reveal a T-shirt that read “Why Always Me?” Mancini simply said: “He’s Mario. He’s crazy, but I love him because he’s not a bad guy.”

Many might conclude that the good is not worth the effort to control the wild side of the player born to Ghanian immigrants in Sicily, fostered by a caring Italian couple in Brescia, who knew as he was growing up that his precious football talent would earn adulation and scorn for his skin in the same breath.

Balotelli matured physically into a frame craved by light-heavyweight boxers. Tall and muscular, fast and instinctive, gifted but unpredictable. In life, he could be irascible, yet then give his last penny to people in need he barely knew.

Mancini, a rebel in his own youth, kept going back to Balotelli, and has done so again.

Italian clubs gave up on him to such an extent that last season he played for Monza, outside the top division. However, Adana Demirspor, promoted to Turkey’s top division for the first time in 26 years, hired him last summer and the club president Murat Sancak has since described Balotelli as “the most disciplined and devoted player of the team.”

Music to Mancini’s ears. He called Balotelli once more and tested him at a training camp near Florence. One trusted Mancini aide, Attilio Lombardo, observed: “Mario has lost a lot of weight. I don’t know if it was Covid-19 or what, but it’s difficult to track his progress now he plays abroad. I honestly did not expect to see him in such good shape.”

If that pleasantness lasts two months into March, we could see a striker reclaimed from his own wayward past restore Italy to the World Cup. A talent rescued from ruin.

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