Antonio Conte not afraid to show Mario Balotelli the revolving door
Italian coach gives stark warning to Liverpool striker ahead of Croatia game
Mario Balotelli and Alessio Cerci during an Italy training session at Coverciano on in Florence. Photograph: Claudio Villa/Getty Images
If Mario Balotelli had ever suspected that his recall to the Italy squad for Sunday’s vital Euro 2016 qualifier against Croatia in Milan was a case of “welcome home” to the prodigal son, he can probably think again. Speaking about Balotelli yesterday, new Italian coach Antonio Conte spelt it out loud and clear.
“If he does as I say, then good, he could be on the team or on the bench or indeed in the grandstand. If he doesn’t, well then the doors here at Coverciano (Italian team training centre) are revolving, You can come in and you can go out. We won’t be seeing you anymore and Amen”
Conte, whose sergeant major style coaching was a key factor in seeing Juventus pick up the last three Serie A titles, was appointed Italian coach this summer replacing Cesare Prandelli, in the wake of Italy’s disappointing first-round exit at the Brazil World Cup. This is the first time that Conte has called up Balotelli and he acknowledged this week that he has summoned him at a moment when the Italian striker is finding it difficult to settle down, both on and off the field, with Liverpool.
Without making any reference to recent shirt swapping and nightclub incidents involving Balotelli, Conte simply said that he wanted to assess the player for himself. He also pointed out that not only Balotelli but also Real Madrid star Alessio Cerci are both having difficulties with their new clubs.
“Maybe it is better that he (Balotelli) arrives at Coverciano at a difficult moment for him. I will have a chance to have a good look at him and also at Cerci. They are both players who represent a great patrimony for Italy but who have gone to play abroad and who are having problems.”
Balotelli has played some of his best football with the Italian national team. In particular, he was inspirational when scoring two goals in Italy’s Euro 2012 semi-final win over Germany in Warsaw. However, his relationship with the national team was rudely interrupted by Italy’s dismal elimination in Brazil this summer.
Balotelli, who had scored the winning goal in Italy’s opening 2-1 win over England, was considered by media pundits to have disappointed in Italy’s subsequent defeats by Costa Rica and Uruguay. Furthermore, goalkeeper captain Gigi Buffon appeared to point an accusatory finger at Balotelli in the wake of Italy’s elimination, saying that “certain younger players” do not pull their weight.
In what is his first call-up since the World Cup, Balotelli is clearly very much on trial and will have to persuade both his coach and his team-mates that he is ready and willing to put his best foot forward forward.
Coach Conte gave no indication as to whether Balotelli will play against Croatia on Sunday. At the moment, strikers such as Sebastian Giovinco of Juventus, Graziano Pellè of Southampton, Simone Zaza of Sassuolo and Ciro Immobile of Borussia Dortmund would all appear to be ahead of Balotelli, at least in the eyes of Conte.
In all probability, Balotelli will start the Croatia game on the bench but he may well be a first-choice starter for Italy against Albania in a friendly on Tuesday of next week.