This story is a little depressing. Not least because it’s not really surprising.
Over the weekend Nice hosted Lorient in Ligue 1 play. Nice is in a strong position to finish in the Top 3 and qualify for the Champions League next season, although they’re unlikely to catch up to Monaco and mount a title bid. (Believe it or not, PSG isn’t at the top of the table and running away with the title. Weird, right?)
So Nice won 1-0 and held on to their spot at #3 in the table. But they had to play the last 20-25 minutes or so defending that slender lead with only 10 men, thanks to a red card shown to— and you probably already know this is coming— Mario Balotelli.
After mixing it up with Lorient defender Zargo Touré, the official came over to Balotelli and told him to chill the eff out. Balotelli, unsurprisingly, did not take kindly to the reprimand. A tense exchange followed and the referee sent him off.
The red card is Balotelli’s third of the season. He now has more red cards than goals in his last six games. This is, to put it mildly, a significant reversal from the start of the season, where he scored eight goals in his first eight games. Yet he has struggled in recent weeks and months, and it’s already causing problems in the dressing room. Just last week, teammate Valentin Eysseric publicly criticized Balotelli’s work ethic and commitment.
”It’s a shame he lets his head drop, you see him in training every day. He’s such a great player. I think he looks like he wants nothing to do with us. It’s really disappointing… We know the coach demands enormous effort from his squad. He won’t accept anyone taking their foot off the gas.”
If you’ve followed Balotelli’s career over the years and read or heard what some teammates and coaches have said about him, Eysseric’s words seem pretty consistent with a frustrating pattern of behavior.
With fellow striker Alassane Plea injured, this was, ironically, a golden opportunity for Balotelli to get some minutes and nail down a place in the teamsheet. But with the suspensions and attendant disciplinary problems, Balotelli very likely blew his last best shot to make good at Nice and, hopefully, salvage his career.
While Balotelli has his share of rubberneckers and those who follow him for what they perceive as drama, there are a great many fans— myself included— who legitimately appreciate him. His talent and latent potential are impossible to deny. His refusal to conform to expectations is refreshing. His willingness to tackle racism in football is worth cheering on. But with Mario Balotelli, there’s always an elephant in the room. His deliberate antagonism of teammates. His inability to do even the bare minimum to maintain relationships with clubs. His propensity for self-sabotage. There has always been a gap between who Balotelli is and who we want him to be, and it’s true for his admirers as well as his detractors. When he starts over (again) at a new club, there’s always this surge of hope that maybe, just maybe, this is where he turns things around. And there’s always disappointment when it doesn’t happen. But there’s one feeling we don’t really experience anymore in this cycle— surprise.