There isn’t another footballer quite like Mario Balotelli, which probably isn’t a bad thing.
The Italian striker has made plenty of headlines over the years. From setting off fireworks from his bathroom window and confronting bullies in school yards, to throwing darts at youth team players and giving £1,000 to a homeless man. His antics have become the stuff of legend.
They have also, however, overshadowed his career. Balotelli has always possessed the raw attributes to be one of world football’s great players. He is technically gifted, intelligent, very powerful and surprisingly quick. What has often let him down is his temperament and attitude.
Now 27 years old, Balotelli has been out of the intense media spotlight for two years.
After a dreadful two-season spell as a Liverpool player, the second of which he spent at Milan on loan, he moved to Ligue 1 side Nice in the summer of 2016. And it’s at the French club that he has finally matured, both on and off the pitch.
He was given an initial one-year deal by the club who were understandably wary of taking Balotelli on. But he dispelled any doubts and struck 17 goals in 28 games. He earned another 12-month contract and this term has 22 goals in 31 games.
That form has raised eyebrows and several sides – including West Ham United, according to Turkish media outlet Aspor – across Europe are considering a move for the former Manchester City star who will be a free agent this summer.
Many clubs will still feel Balotelli is more trouble than he’s worth. But the high-profile off-pitch hijinks have seemingly been cut-out in favour of a more dedicated footballing lifestyle.
“My agent Mino Raiola is taking care of my future,” the frontman said earlier this month. “All I know is that I have matured.”
Balotelli added he would consider a move back to Italy. He didn’t mention the Premier League but he certainly has unfinished business in England’s top flight. And if West Ham could clinch a deal for the more driven and focused Italian, he could prove a bargain signing.
As the graphic shows, Balotelli is by far the most effective striker, albeit he’s playing in a weaker league. He’s the most clinical of the quartet, outperforming his xG (expected goals) by some distance while also, somewhat surprisingly, having the highest xA (expected goals assisted).
Given he is a wideman by trade Arnautović topping the foursome for big chances created isn’t a huge surprise. He has impressed leading the Hammers attack since David Moyes took charge but there is a nagging feeling that in a deeper role, with more space to work in, the Austrian could be even more influential.
It’s why pursuing Balotelli, assuming the Hammers stay up, could be a smart move. Carroll’s fitness can’t be trusted and Hernández is unable to play up front alone, the Irons need a focal point and the ex-Milan star could provide that.
His signing would be welcomed by Arnautović too. The pair shared a flat during their time at Inter and enjoyed each other’s company.
“He can be serious and can be a gentleman, all good,’ he said an an interview with the Daily Mail. “He just wants to be the star, the best and he is trying so hard. I don’t know what stops him, really.”
Balotelli may not be the star he hoped at 27 years old, he may not even be close. But he’s proven at Nice that he has matured and is ready for another crack at the big time.West Ham could give him that platform.
The Hammers faithful have always appreciated a flawed genius; Paolo Di Canio and Carlos Tevez were beloved during their time in East London. Balotelli fits that criteria to a tee. He is worth taking a gamble on.