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Was Conte Right To Drop Balotelli?

Team Azzurri News Image
Associated Press

Discussing Azzurri coach Antonio Conte's decision to not call up Mario Balotelli.

ANTONIO CONTE sent a direct message to Mario Balotelli after leading Italy through back-to-back victories: “I always look to the pitch and those who deserve it will play.”

The former Juventus manager had the best possible start to an almost impossible job, but was he right to leave out Super Mario from his first International Squad?

Tactics and Poor refereeing cost Italy in Brazil more than Balotelli did

Following the Azzurri’s poor showing in Brazil, Balotelli was made a scapegoat, and considered the central reason behind Italy’s exit. From being the match winner against England, to missing a sitter against Costa Rica, to being subbed at half-time in the Uruguay match (suspended for the next game if Italy qualified), it is fair to say that the former Milan man disappointed.

More significant however, was Prandelli’s tactical set up against Costa Rica. Replacing Marco Verratti for Thiago Motto in Italy’s midfield left a whole in the fantasista spot. In addition, Antonio Candreva and Claudio Marchisio had run marathons in the jungle against England and could have used a rest; particularly Candreva who became a hindrance. Cesare Prandelli attempted to alter things at half time, playing three second strikers, but neither could get into the game and make an impact. The game was a complete disaster, the worst Italian performance in recent memory. Even if Balotelli should have scored, Daniele De Rossi was terrible, Motta even worse, Candreva even worse... Cerci even... you get the
picture.

Against Uruguay, again the tactics bemused most, Ciro Immobile partnered Balotelli. Ironic really, as Italy could have used his ability to run in behind against Costa Rica, when they were caught off-side more times than one could count. But against a Uruguayan team ready to sit deep, was this choice really wise?

Verratti was back, but Italy should have attempted to play more intricately rather than just boot the ball long towards Balotelli and Immobile. They were getting manhandled from behind and winning no decisions from, Marco Rodríguez, the referee who was undoubtedly the main contributing factor to Italy’s exit: sending off Marchisio for an innocuous foul; allowing Edinson Cavani to remain on the pitch despite a wild too-footed lunge on Marco Verratti (robbing Italy of their most influential player); and of course the Luis Suarez bite.

To most this was difficult to spot, however given Suarez’s history, this incident looked clear cut before Giorgio Chiellini attempted to show Rodriguez the bite marks.

Conte the right man to lead Italy

The appointment of Conte to lead the Italian National Team was undoubtedly the right one. Fresh off the back of three consecutive Serie A titles, with a Juventus side that has the core elements of the Azzurri, he can provide the stability to a national team which Prandelli had lost in his ambition to have a shape-shifting team that could operate a multitude of formations. Aside from Carlo Ancelotti, there really wasn’t another tactician who is worthy of such an important role.

The Balotelli Statement

His decision to leave out Balotelli makes a huge statement. The Liverpool striker has already earned 13 more caps than Conte and brings a wealth of experience and pedigree to la Nazionale at just 24-years- old. A young talent that has already demonstrated his desire, quality, and passion for the Azzurri shirt should surely not be pushed aside. It’s not as if he is competing with Roberto Baggio, Roberto Mancini, Gianfranco Zola and Paolo Di Canio either.

Instead, Conte felt that Sebastian Giovinco, Fabio Quagliarella and Pablo Osvaldo deserved call ups; three players that all regressed under Conte at Juventus and lost their World Cup places due to their limited playing time, managing just four Serie A goals between them compared to Balotelli’s 14. Stephen El Shaarawy mustered up just a solitary goal in his nine appearances of an injury plagued season, yet he apparently deserved a call.

On the other hand, Balotelli’s level of work ethic at all of his former clubs has raised doubts about his professionalism. Conte would’ve hardly been impressed by this, given that he was a footballer with an aptitude for hard work. And Balotelli’s off the pitch antics, however honest or harmless, are not giving him a positive PR, which again raises further questions over his professionalism.

Balotelli Walking Alone

A super star since his debut for Inter at 16-years- old and the first black player to represent Italy at a major tournament, Balotelli is walking a path that nobody can relate to. Loved and hated, dividing opinions, Balotelli has felt the scrutiny of the media. His “Why Always Me” shirt unveiled a man of confidence, humour, and isolation.

In Italy, Mario has been racially abused often by away supporters, National team supporters and even the Gazzetta dello Sport who printed a cartoon sketch depicting Mario as King Kong during Euro 2012.

Before the world cup started, 86% of fans voted in the Corriere dello Sport poll that they would rather see Immobile start ahead of Balotelli. Even before his Euro 2012 semi-final match winning display, against the now World Champions Germany, fans and critics argued that Di Natale or somebody other than Balotelli should lead the line.

Andrea Pirlo has experienced the monkey chants first-hand in his own stadium and the “Jump High So Balotelli Dies” chant, and feels that Mario has an important role to play on and off the pitch:

“We also need Mario Balotelli, I’m not sure he really appreciates it yet, but he’s a special kind of medicine, an antidote to the potentially lethal poison of racists you find in Italian grounds... In terms of footballing ability, Mario’s class is unquestionable.”

Was Conte right to drop Balotelli

Did Balotelli work hard enough for the Azzurri? Throughout Mario’s international career there can be no disputing his application and passion for the Azzurri shirt. Given his mediocre work-ethic at Inter, Man City and Milan, the application Balotelli has placed into the Italian shirt has been there for all to see.

At Euro 2012, Thierry Henry described him as the most important striker of the tournament, whilst Balotelli shed tears for the jersey after Italy’s defeat to Spain in the final. At the Confederation’s Cup a year later, Mario was literally kicked out of Brazil despite impressing with each performance.

The most important job for a new coach is to get the best out of his players and by dropping Balotelli, he may just see the striker raise his level. However, this was an important moment were Conte could have called Balotelli up and levied his expectations. Instead in his baffling claim of meritocracy, Conte has further isolated one of the Azzurri’s most important players.