Mario Balotelli’s career revival plan is well underway, with the Italian striker having made a fine start to life at Nice. Five goals in his three appearances have helped propel a side who are traditionally mid-table makeweights to an unlikely spot at the top of the table. They remain the only unbeaten side in Ligue 1. For a century the French Riviera has been seen as an ideal place for wealthy convalescents, and Balotelli is just the latest in a long line.
Of course, three matches certainly aren’t enough to declare him back to his best; indeed, some would argue that an entire season in the comparatively weak French top flight wouldn’t be sufficient to earn him another chance at a team like Manchester City or Liverpool. Old habits die hard, and there are already signs that Balo’s are still alive and kicking. After netting a last-gasp winner in Nice’s victory over Lorient on the weekend, he picked up two yellow cards in as many minutes, and will subsequently miss a difficult game at home to Lyon after the international break.
But for a team like Nice, for whom any improvement on a comfortable mid-table finish is no mean feat, patience with Balotelli will surely be rewarded. It’s easy to exaggerate the extent of Balo’s disciplinary problems: in his entire career, he’s been sent off only five times in league matches, and while 59 yellow cards over the same period is undoubtedly an excessive return for a striker, it’s no real cause for concern for a side like Nice.
The great benefit of being a comfortable mid-table club is that you can afford to drop points every now and again; you can afford to put up with sporadic ill-discipline in the knowledge that such a star player will still ultimately win you many more points than you’d have without them. As a result, they can often serve as wonderful shelters for some of football’s more entertaining talents, whose inconsistency doesn’t tend to match up well with the (understandable) impatience of the biggest sides, for whom every mistake can prove costly.
Indeed, time and again, it often seems the best option for players like Balotelli to remain at smaller clubs. There really is something in the "big fish" cliché, beyond simple arrogance on the part of the player. Small clubs can offer the space for players to truly express themselves as comes naturally, and the entertainment that results — away from the pressure of a title challenge — can be extraordinarily rewarding for both player and supporter alike.
Part of the opprobrium aimed at Balotelli in the past has been based on how he looks when he’s on the field. But the idea he’s a lazy footballer is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which originates as a misreading of his languid, technical style and gradually becomes true as the player’s own confidence drains into a puddle of frustration. But we should perhaps see him in the mold of Juan Román Riquelme or Antonio Cassano: mercurial attacking talents, outstanding entertainers, but ultimately players who only reached their full potential at comparatively small clubs.
The departure of another of Nice’s reformed stars, Hatem Ben Arfa — who left for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer — has ensured that Balo is quite comfortably the strongest player in their squad. He has the technical ability to do things others could only dream of, and given — as he surely shall be — a consistent run of first-team matches, it’s safe to imagine him easily surpassing his previous league season best of 14 goals.
If he does so, the rumors linking him back to a big team will surely start flying once more. But he should take the example of Ben Arfa as instructive. Having enjoyed a wonderful season at Nice, the French playmaker has made just two league appearances so far this season; before this weekend’’s victory over Bordeaux, he was omitted from five of Unai Emery’s matchday squads on the bounce. Sometimes, as Balo may have already learned, the grass really is no greener.