Mario Balotelli’s OGC Nice contract ends in June, but in a recent cryptic instagram post the Italian striker suggested he might be interested in extending his stay on the French Riviera.
“Thank you people for all those emotions of this year,” posted Balotelli. “I hope we can be together again … future will tell.”
That post is testament to the rehabilitation of his career over the last year in the south of France and also the Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivère’s decision to take a punt on the Italian striker.
Rivère says the Italian striker’s troublesome reputation is a far cry from the “good guy” he has witnessed up close over the last year in the south of France.
“Mario Balotelli has a reputation which I believe is not in tune with who he really is,” Rivère told CNN Sport.
“He perfectly integrated to the club. The Balotelli escapades, which everyone expected, especially the journalists, never happened here,” added Rivère.
Balotelli was once one of Europe’s most sought after young strikers, plying his trade at Inter Milan, AC Milan, Manchester City and Liverpool.
But his propensity for hi-jinx coupled with high profile spats with a number of his former managers led many to conclude his off-field behaviour was a headache they could do without.
“Super Mario” famously set fire to his house the night before City played cross-town rivals Manchester United in 2011 after setting off fireworks in the bathroom. There were also reports he threw a dart at a City youth team player in the same year.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera after the 2014 World Cup, meanwhile former Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said Balotelli lived in a dimension that was “far from reality.”
Now 26, Balotelli left Liverpool to join Nice on a free transfer in August last year after being frozen out of the Anfield club’s pre-season tour by manager Jurgen Klopp.
Fifteen league goals in 23 league games as Nice finished third in Ligue 1 to reach next season’s Champions League qualifiers suggest it’s a move that has worked well for both parties — although there have also been three sending offs.
Rivère says Balotelli’s more wholesome off-field antics have brought some welcome levity to the club.
He recalls “funny videos” made by the Italian international as well as “hilarious” moments, one of which occurred at the airport on the way back from a successful recent away victory.
“Mario was happy (as) all teammates were and he passed through the detector sliding on his knees, just like he was celebrating a goal,” Rivère says. “Now, that is Mario Balotelli, and honestly, this is quite refreshing.”
Rivère says Balotelli signed for Nice after a lengthy conversation with him at his house last year convinced each party the move was right.
“I spent about four to five hours with him. Rightly or wrongly, I thought he was a potential player for OGC Nice, he wouldn’t disrupt the team, and he would help us a lot on the pitch,” Rivère explains.
“I had a good feeling with the guy. Maybe we have been lucky, I can’t tell.”
Turning around the careers of experienced big name players, whose form and careers have dipped, has become a key strategy for Nice in recent years — and it seems to be working.
Nice has achieved its third placed finish ahead of more monied teams such as Europa League semifinalists Lyon and Marseille.
“We proved it with Hatem Ben Arfa and Mario Balotelli — superstars signing with us, who might be in trouble in other clubs, because a football player’s life can be tough sometimes, and who rediscover comfort and enjoyment here, which will promote their hatching or revival,” Rivère says.
“But unfortunately, I think that we are not the only club in France and in the world that is able to do that. Far from it. However, this has become a kind of trademark of OGC Nice.”
Where a revitalizing season on the French Riviera will lead a rejuvenated Balotelli next remains to be seen.