Balotelli’s back! What has Italy striker been up to during international exile?


In a major blast from the past, striker Mario Balotelli has been recalled into the Italy national side more than three years since his last international cap.

Balotelli has been included by coach Roberto Mancini for a special training camp ahead of the Azzurri‘s upcoming 2022 World Cup qualifying playoff against North Macedonia in March. The 31-year-old, who now plays in Turkey with Adana Demirspor, will be part of the 35-man group that Mancini will examine over the course of a three-day get-together set to take place this week.

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Balotelli has scored 14 goals in 36 games for Italy, but his last appearance came in September 2018 when he started in a 1-1 draw against Poland in the UEFA Nations League before being hauled off by Mancini early in the second half. That unremarkable 62-minute foray was one of just three caps won by the former Manchester City and Inter Milan forward since the 2014 World Cup. Even Mancini, who had Balotelli to thank for laying on the assist for Sergio Aguero‘s Premier League title-winning goal in 2012, had seen enough.

Balotelli was playing for Ligue 1 club Nice at the time, where he scored 43 goals in 76 appearances during a stint on the French Riviera that began with a roaring return to form after joining them in 2016. However, things soon began to fall apart as his third season at Nice started in ominous fashion when the infamously ill-disciplined striker reported for preseason training two weeks late. This prompted coach Patrick Vieira to requesting that the club allowed Balotelli to leave.

Nevertheless, he limped on, playing just 10 times without scoring a single goal in the first half of the 2018-19 campaign. Things then came to an abrupt end the following January when, after missing the five previous games, Balotelli had his Nice contract terminated and joined local rivals Marseille on a short-term deal until the end of the season.

Balotelli’s form was reinvigorated as he scored eight goals in 15 league appearances, most notably against Saint-Etienne in March 2019 when he notched an acrobatic volley before streaming his celebration with teammates on Instagram Live using a phone he had strategically stashed pitchside.

Despite his return to form, Balotelli was still let go by Marseille in July 2019 after a failure to qualify for the Champions League left the club needing to trim their wage bill.

The next chapter in Balotelli’s increasingly itinerant career saw him return to Italy, signing a “multi-year” contract with hometown side Brescia in August 2019. He was forced to wait for his debut due to a four-game suspension accrued for a straight red card he received after coming on as a substitute in his final game for Marseille. He scored five goals in 19 games for Le Rondinelle but was unable to prevent them from being relegated to Serie B come the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, thus signalling his abrupt exit from the club.

What followed was a move to fellow Serie B outfit Monza, who were owned by former AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi, ran by former Milan executive Adriano Galliani, coached by ex-Milan midfielder Christian Brocchi and counted former Milan star Kevin-Prince Boateng amongst the squad.

Repeated injury layoffs blighted Balotelli’s seven-month association with Monza, though he did muster six goals in 14 appearances without ever completing a full 90 minutes for the club before being released in the summer.

However, he didn’t have to wait long to find gainful employment as newly-promoted Turkish Super Lig side Adana Demirspor (ADS) decided to take the plunge last July, offering the wayward Italian an optimistic three-year deal and unveiling him with a stirring montage of his career highlights (while also glossing over more than a few dips).

Balotelli has since repaid the club’s faith in him, scoring nine goals in 21 games, including in a 3-3 draw at Super Lig champions Besiktas. He scored on his return from illness in last Saturday’s 5-0 drubbing of Karagumruk despite only coming on for the last eight minutes of the match, notching his side’s fourth goal of the game before providing an assist for their fifth. ADS are riding high in fourth place in the Super Lig table in their first top-flight campaign for 26 years, and are just one point behind Alanyaspor in second.

Balotelli has taken a circuitous route, but he has ultimately played his way back into the reckoning at international level. He celebrated his recall by posting on Instagram an image of his most iconic goal celebration for the national team — his shirtless flexing after scoring his second goal in the Euro 2012 semifinal win over Germany.

Of course, Balotelli is far from the first player to be called back in from the cold after years in the international wilderness, with many big names returning to the fold after extended periods of exile.

Benzema was a shock inclusion in Didier Deschamp’s Euro 2020 squad having been previously endured persona non grata status for Les Bleus since 2015 due to the striker facing trial for alleged blackmail. The 34-year-old Real Madrid forward has scored nine goals in 13 appearances since his return, including a prolific run of five goals in his last four outings and helping the world champions win the UEFA Nations League.

Santi Cazorla (Spain)

When Cazorla first underwent his first operation on a gruesome Achilles tendon injury in 2016 he was told he might never walk again, never mind play football. However, the midfield maestro fought back from the brink and four years, eight major surgeries, and one resurgent return to form at Villarreal later, the 34-year-old was recalled by Spain in the summer of 2019, some 1,299 days since his last appearance for La Roja. He even scored in a World Cup qualifier against Malta a few months later.

Henrik Larsson (Sweden)

Larsson first retired from international football at the age of 31 in the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup. He then reversed that decision after being convinced to play for Sweden again at Euro 2004. Amazingly, Larsson ended up scoring three goals for his country at the tournament before playing on until the 2006 World Cup, after which he duly retired… again… before being lured back out of retirement to take part at Euro 2008, after which he retired… again. We can only assume that this time it’s for good.

Aside from missing a hat trick of penalties in one game, Palermo is also famous for going for an entire decade between winning caps with Argentina. The Boca Juniors legend seemed to have played his first and last international games with the Albiceleste in the space of a year when he featured four times in 1999, scoring three goals. Years went by without another call-up until 2009, when Argentina coach Diego Maradona decided he needed a wily, veteran striker to lead the line and turned to his old Boca cohort. As if it were written in the stars, the 35-year-old then scored a vital goal in stoppage time in a rain-lashed game against Peru that kept Argentina on course to qualify for the 2010 World Cup before going on to score at the tournament proper — finding the net against Greece in the group stage.

Ian Callaghan (England)

In what surely must be a record, Callaghan went more than a decade between winning his second and third caps for England. After making his debut against Finland in a pre-tournament friendly, the Liverpool winger made his second appearance for the Three Lions against France in the group stage of the 1966 World Cup at the age of 24. He then waited a frankly astounding 11 years and 49 days to win his third cap, when at the age of 35 he was recalled by England to face Switzerland in a friendly at Wembley in September 1977.

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