When Inter Milan beat Barcelona in the first leg of their 2010 Champions League semifinal, it was a stunning upset and immense accomplishment. Barring, that is, an incident that threatened to overshadow the coup; Mario Balotelli was whistled at by the fans at the San Siro -- not for the first time -- and in a fit of rage, he took off his Inter shirt and threw it on the ground as he stormed off the pitch. Dejan Stankovic described Mario at the time as being like a child, saying "I'm a father of three kids and we can't take him by the collar, too." A month later, Mario appeared on Striscia La Notizia, an Italian comedy program where he received an AC Milan shirt with his name embezzled on it, which he happily put on, angering the Inter fans even further.
Mario had been an AC Milan fan since childhood, and had stated on several occasions that his dream was to play for them -- even during his Inter days. When the stars aligned, albeit in the sense of stars like Zlatan and Thiago Silva leaving Milan for PSG, he finally got a chance at his dream. Milan bought the erratic forward after his public fallout with Roberto Mancini at Manchester City. His legacy at City included a goal with his shoulder, a failed backheel goal and the infamous "Why Always Me" celebration.
Coming in with much fanfare -- posing with Stephan El Shaarawy and M'Baye Niang to showcase their spiked haircuts in front of thousands of fans -- he hit the ground running. As Milan were toying with the idea of relegation, Mario managed to score 12 goals in 13 games to help the team qualify for the Champions League. His arrival and the reinvigoration of the team after that January helped to unfortunately save the job of Max Allegri, if only for a short time. In the 43 games that he played for Milan, Mario scored 26 goals, including some spectacular ones like this goal against Bologna:
The move was beneficial for all three parties involved: Mario got to play for AC Milan and move closer to his family, away from the English media spotlight. Milan made a statement of their future intent, signing and developing young players, rather than spending recklessly on superstars as the club had done in the past, and Manchester City were able to rid themselves of a troubled and troubling squad member.
So what could possibly be the justification for selling such a coveted young forward for a measly £16million a year and a half later? Filippo Inzaghi, Milan’s new manager, stated to reporters that "When a player leaves, it means all the parties involved took this decision. We are certainly losing a great player, but we gain something more in team spirit and hunger."
No one can deny the critical aspects of team spirit and hunger in football, but there is a bothersome prospect to Inzaghi’s statement. For one, Allegri’s early tenure is evidence of what happens when a team is hardworking but lacking in talent; you’re subjected to antagonizing 0-0 draws, far from Milan’s desired champagne football. The opposite is just as disastrous, as the era of Ronaldinho and Kaka showed. The ideal would be something similar to Atlético Madrid, where a team is as talented as it is disciplined. At the moment, Milan are neither, and the gulf in quality was harshly evident as they were run off the pitch against teams like Manchester City and Liverpool earlier this summer.
Mario is admittedly not the hardest-working player you might ever find, but during his time at Milan, he was not just the focal point of the attack but the only threatening player on the pitch. Injuries, age and plain ineptitude affected the squad otherwise: Stephan El Shaarawy spent all of last season in the training room, Keisuke Honda was ineffective after failing to adapt to the Italian game. Kaka was a shadow of his former, former self, Pazzini contributed just two goals to the whole cause and the less said about Robinho, the better. Only Adel Taarabt, who is still in a bubble over his future, came close to having the same impact as Balotelli.
Milan have attempted to rectify the drought of talent that plagues the team by signing Diego Lopez, Jeremy Menez, Pablo Armero and making the Adil Rami loan permanent. One of the main arguments against Milan last year was that the team lacked a supporting cast for Balotelli; here Inzaghi has decided that it's best to get rid of the star himself while bringing in that support. And to replace Balotelli, if reports are to be trusted, Milan are looking at the likes of Fernando Torres, Fabio Borini, Roberto Soldado and Konstantinos Mitroglou, a list of names that sounds like the beginning of a distasteful joke rather than a set of capable forwards.
While teams like Juventus, Inter and Napoli seem to hold their best players in vice grips while building for the future, Milan seem to be in a constant flux of selling and then buying/loaning cheap replacements. It happened with the departure of Kaka the first time, then Zlatan and Silva and now Mario. It’s even hard to suggest that this is a rebuilding phase for the club as there doesn’t seem to be a concrete plan in place past getting to the Europa League -- and even that is a task that seems farfetched at this stage.
Milan’s loss will be Liverpool’s and Italy’s gain. This is no longer the Mario who set off fireworks in his apartment bathroom or the Mario who needed to be grabbed by the collar like a child. Time, the presence of Seedorf and being closer to his family have had huge positive impacts on him. The boy has steadily grown into a man; getting engaged and having a child in the process without losing the charm that makes him intriguing. He is still prone to frustration on the field and can still be agitated by defenders if pushed far enough. But he has come leaps and bounds from his former self, which makes Milan’s role in this all the more puzzling.
At Liverpool, Balotelli will no longer be the focus of the team’s attack. He has Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Coutinho to relieve him of that burden, and thus should blossom into a better player, given the chance to drop deeper where his playmaking abilities and long-range shooting can be more useful. The fast pace and hardworking style of Liverpool will present a welcome problem for him, forcing him to either sink or swim and to address his weaknesses, something he should be more capable of at 24 than he was two years ago.
Conversely he will be returning to a country where he didn’t enjoy himself the first time. In Italy, he was able to mature privately, without the harsh tabloid spotlight, and while he received his fair share of criticism -- he infamously berated Boban for being too harsh on him -- it was nowhere the level of his time at Manchester City. Liverpool, on the other hand, are famously protective so it would seem like a perfect fit for someone of his personality.
So Liverpool get a forward with star quality growing into his own, a situation similar to when they purchased Sturridge, and Mario gets to go to a team abundant in talent. Milan, though, are left weaker than before, even if team spirit and hunger are maximized.