“Finally, I am coming home to MY CITY. Brescia, I’m here”.
Those were the words of Mario Balotelli, upon agreeing to return to the city that he grew up in, back in August. The player also revealed that his foster mother had cried when he told her that he was going to play for the Lombardy-based club. The scene appeared to be set for a glorious homecoming. Joining a team on the crest of a wave having earned their place back in Serie A for the first time since 2011, Balotelli was now the star name in a side looking to re-establish themselves in the top flight.
Yet things have not gone to plan. Those of a superstitious nature may argue that the move was doomed from the start. Rumour has it that the Italian striker signed on the dotted line on August 17, although the deal was not announced until the following day. With 17 being an unlucky number in Italy, perhaps the damage was done before Balotelli had even kicked a ball.
Regardless of whether you believe in that kind of thing, Balotelli’s Serie A return has certainly not worked out so far. Let’s take a look at where it seems to have gone wrong.
The early suspension
When signing for a new club it is often important to get off to a good start. Balotelli was not afforded that opportunity. Having been sent off in his final game at Marseille in the previous season, he had to miss the opening four games of the campaign through suspension.
This meant that he did not actually feature for the team until September 24, more than a month after joining the club. With his first two games coming against Juventus and Napoli, last season’s top two, it was hardly the ideal start. Yet he did get off the mark in Naples, scoring a late consolation goal.
Still, Brescia were struggling. Having won two of their first four matches, they were now on a losing streak, and the service into Balotelli was limited. The forward failed to find the net in any of his next three games, and he picked up two bookings during this period as his frustration threatened to boil over. The team were floundering towards the foot of the table already, and there was worse still to come.
Racism rears its ugly head
During his previous spell in Italy at both Milan clubs, Balotelli was subjected to racist abuse. The 29-year-old was questioned on the matter when he was unveiled as a Brescia player back in August:
“I don’t know what to expect. I hope things don’t happen like in the past”, he told the assembled press.
Unfortunately, they did. In early November, Brescia had travelled to Hellas Verona. Midway through the second half, Balotelli booted the ball off the pitch in disgust after claiming that he had heard racist chants from a section of home fans. Despite clearly being distressed by the situation, Balotelli played on and responded admirably with a late goal in a 2-1 defeat.
Following the game, the head of the Verona ultras shamefully said that Balotelli “can never be completely Italian”, causing the striker to label those who had abused him as “small-minded people”. Brescia were underperforming on the pitch, and their best attacking player was now being treated disgracefully by a group of supporters. The homecoming had taken an unsavoury turn.
Who’s in charge?
Managers are often under immense pressure when their team is facing relegation. The odd sacking is to be expected. Yet the managerial merry-go-round at Brescia this season has bordered on the ridiculous.
Having led the side to promotion last season, Eugenio Corini started the season in charge, only to be given his marching orders in November. In came World Cup winner Fabio Grosso. He lasted a total of three matches. No goals scored, ten conceded. He was swiftly shown the door. Back came Corini. Four weeks earlier he had not been good enough to turn the team’s fortunes around, now all of a sudden, maybe he could.
Or maybe not. Two months later, he bid farewell again and was replaced by Diego Lopez. Now onto their third manager of the season, and fourth appointment, it is no wonder that Balotelli has found it difficult to play with any sort of consistency. With a new face appearing on the touchline seemingly every other week, and the team switching between a narrow 4-4-2, to three at the back, to 4-3-3 with very little success, Balotelli must be wondering what exactly is going on.
What next for Balotelli?
With everything that has been happening around him, Balotelli has not actually done too badly on the pitch. He is Brescia’s top scorer in the league with five goals in 19 games. Admittedly not an outstanding return by any means, but Balotelli cannot take all the blame as none of his teammates are finding the target regularly either. Only SPAL have scored fewer goals this season than Brescia.
Yet it seems that Balotelli is not happy at all. Reports emerged in the past week that he has skipped training, with Brescia refusing to comment on the matter. Never one to hold his tongue, Brescia’s owner Massimo Cellino was particularly scathing in his assessment of the forward.
“He doesn’t show up to training, he doesn’t look very committed let’s say, for the future of the club. That’s the problem”, he said.
Some may laugh at Cellino questioning Balotelli’s commitment given that the controversial owner has struggled to commit to a manager for longer than a month this season. Nevertheless, it does appear that the relationship between Balotelli and Brescia is at an all-time low.
Cellino also claimed that Balotelli does not have a contract for Serie B, indicating that the side’s top scorer will be moved on at the end of the season if the club are relegated. With the Serie A season set to resume in June, Balotelli could be about to enter his final weeks at his hometown team.
Brescia are nine points short of safety with 12 games remaining so their chances of survival look bleak. Can Balotelli turn things around in time? Right now it appears unlikely, but with Mario you just never know.