In late February, the Italian national side began their lengthy rebuilding process after missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1958 in Sweden.
Interim manager Luigi Di Biagio called a three-day training camp, from February 26-28, at the Italian FA’s Coverciano headquarters. A 24-man squad was named but players from Juventus, Napoli, AC Milan and Lazio and were unavailable due to Coppa Italia and Serie A commitments.
So Di Biagio assessed alternatives. Two young strikers in 18-year-old Andrea Pinamonti, of Inter Milan, and 20-year-old Federico Chiesa, son of Enrico and also at Fiorentina, were notable inclusions.
Mario Balotelli was a notable omission from an Italy training camp in February
New Italy manager Roberto Mancini has opened the door for Balotelli to return to the fold
Mancini knows Balotelli’s strengths but the pair have clashed before at Manchester City
But another forward, one with 20 goals already to his name, was left out despite being free from club duty. In any ordinary case, they would have been a guaranteed selection but when it comes to Mario Balotelli, things are far from ordinary.
That is, possibly, until now. For the first time in his career, there are genuine signs that the man synonymous with trouble has changed his ways. And with Roberto Mancini, a manager who knows the good and the bad of Balotelli as well as any in the game, taking the reigns at Italy there are plenty of reasons to believe he is only halfway along the comeback trail.
‘Mario is an Italian player. We will definitely talk,’ Mancini said of Balotelli upon his unveiling as Italy boss. ‘He is one of those players we should take a new look at.’
So when Mancini wipes the slate clean with Balotelli – a man he once had a training ground bust-up with at Manchester City – what will he see?
Now 27, Balotelli has repeatedly made headlines in his two seasons at Nice for all the right reasons. His 25 goals in this campaign have come in 35 games, spearheading Nice’s charge for sixth in Ligue 1 and a Europa League play-off place.
Finally, in entering his peak years, he has found his stride and is starting to consistently deliver what has always looked possible. This season is not an anomaly; last year he netted 17 in 28 and overall has an impressive 42 in 63 games.
With Italy plotting a way out of the international wilderness, there is no better time for Balotelli, who has 33 caps and 13 goals, to make his comeback.
Balotelli has been in brilliant scoring form at Nice with 42 goals in 63 appearances so far
Gianluigi Buffon has previously spoken in favour of Balotelli returning to the Italian side
Balotelli hasn’t played for Italy since the 2014 World Cup, where he scored against England
He last featured at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, scoring the winner in the 2-1 victory over England before Cesare Pradelli’s side fell at the first hurdle along with Roy Hodgson’s team. He never played under Antonio Conte and was only called up once, in the first squad the now Chelsea boss named after Brazil.
Italy played two friendlies in March, a 2-0 loss to Argentina at the Etihad Stadium and a 1-1 draw with England at Wembley. Balotelli was again left out, despite calls from Gianluigi Buffon for him to be returned.
‘I’d be delighted if Mario came back because he would have the opportunity to demonstrate he has matured 100 per cent,’ Buffon said to Mediaset. ‘He could show that he has continuity and that he’s become a great footballer.
‘I think that what Balotelli has done over the past two years warrants a recall to the national team. He’s hugely talented and he’s never had this continuity. The hope is there that he has fully matured.
‘I’ve only seen the same power and precision of shot as he has from (Francesco) Totti.’
The snub for the friendlies, Balotelli admitted, surprised him.
”If I’m honest, I expected to be back in Azzurro,’ he told Gazzetta dello Sport in March. ‘I’ve matured, I’m 27 and I have two children. The time for (messing around with) girls has long gone.’
Another installment of his relationship with Mancini would be fascinating, too. Sergio Aguero, in his book ‘Born to Rise’, said the two would often argue but had a relationship like father and son.
Sergio Aguero said Balotelli and Mancini were ‘like father and son’ together at City
But Aguero also said that Balotelli and Mancini would argue and ‘fight like cat and dog’
‘His [Balotelli’s] relationship with Mancini often made me smile,’ Aguero wrote. ‘They would fight like cat and dog during training and then walk off with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They would swear and shout at each other, but later they’d be like father and son.
‘Quite often we’d have five-a-sides in training and Mancini would join in. Mario would say, ‘You were s*** when you were a player… and it was a lot easier then than it is now.’ Mancini would say, ‘You wouldn’t have been able to play then or now!’ It was comical.’
But before any reunion with Mancini, Balotelli has to sort where he is going to be playing next season. He will almost certainly leave Nice on a free when his contract expires this summer and Saturday’s game at Lyon could be his Nice farewell.
Enter Balotelli’s agent, Mino Raiola.
‘He’s matured and he’s one of the top ten forwards in the world, and he’s the No 1 in Italy,’ Raiola said in March. ‘He’s worth €100 million (£88m), but he’s available on a free, so he’s a bargain.
‘I’m already negotiating with many clubs in England and Italy. I’ve spoken with Juve, Roma, Napoli and Inter, but not Milan since they have (sporting director Massimiliano) Mirabelli and I’m not on his same level.’
Yet any team interested in Balotelli will have to be aware that while he has largely kept his head down, he isn’t a completely different character from the one seen on English shores with City and Liverpool. Four red cards in two years at Nice – three of which were last season – attest to that.
Earlier in May, he was filmed bellowing an expletive about French referees after a booking against Marseille. And away from the field of play, he was caught by French police last August speeding at 125mph in his Ferrari, racing a friend who owned a Lamborghini.
He still, occasionally, turns his surroundings into his playground.
Balotelli’s agent, Mino Raiola, says the striker is worth ‘€100 million… but is a bargain’
Balotelli’s goals at Nice this season has spearheaded their charge to try and reach Europe
Balotelli has kept his self-deprecating humour – joking about being president on Instagram
But Balotelli has kept his endearing sense of self-deprecating humour. In January, he shared a picture on Instagram of his face imposed onto Barack Obama.
‘TBT (Throwback Thursday) to when I was president of the US,’ Balotelli wrote, with several emojis of a face crying with laughter. Some may say he is still a preferable option to current incumbent.
But how preferable is he to Europe’s elite sides? It will be revealed over the coming months but football has shown that if a player can regularly score goals, there will always be a place for him in a team whatever the perceived baggage.
It is far too soon to think that Balotelli’s story has reached its zenith. There is more to come, be it on or off the pitch.