Mario Balotelli (27) chose Nice-Matin to give his first ever interview to the written French press.
He said himself, “It was important to open up so that the supporters know my real personality, and the man that I am.” And it was well worth the yearlong wait. The star signing from Nice’s summer 2016 transfer window had been described as unmanageable, someone who keeps to himself, and an overrated striker who thinks he is all that.
Nice-Matin met with an open and receptive man for over an hour. An advocate for human values who spoke frankly to us, but with a brightening smile on his face. The joyous doting father’s new son Lion was just born and is joining the daughter Pia. He is aware of the “big brother” role bestowed on him by the dressing room.
Super Mario is a calm man, who is well aware of his popularity amongst the staff and Nice supporters, who is driven by the idea of finding a top club and returning to la Squadra Azzura. Mario is giving you the chance to discover a great guy before their clash against Paris Saint-Germain.
Mario, has signing for OGC Nice proved to be a good choice?
Before talking about football, there is the human aspect. The president and the coach are amazing people. It is especially because of them that I made this choice. Before anything, I had to feel wanted in that respect. It was a good choice on a human, lifestyle and football level. Even if this period is not the best, I think that Nice has the necessary qualities to be a good team.
Was the first meeting with the president crucial?
By speaking with him, and looking him in the eyes, I felt a person who really wanted me. That made me very happy. And when I arrived here, I also saw the city. I was going through a difficult period in Liverpool, I was not a big fan of the city. I needed a change after two poor seasons at Liverpool and AC Milan. By coming to Nice, which is not like Madrid with all due respect, there was also a risk if I messed up another time. But here, I have found the right environment to succeed.
Did you know about Lucien Favre?
No, because I do not really watch German football.
How did your first meeting with the coach in a Saint-Jeannet restaurant go?
We talked about football, his vision of the sport, the kind of movement he expects from strikers. I liked what he had to say, and agreed with him. We spoke about the club’s play style, built on possession and creating plenty of chances for strikers to score. For me, it was perfect.
What did you know about OGC Nice? You perhaps followed [Hatem] Ben Arfa?
No. Unfortunately, I did not know about Nice until the terrorist attacks. I went two or three times on vacation to Monaco, and Saint-Tropez as well six years ago. But never to Nice. And for Ben Arfa, I saw him when he was playing for Newcastle when I was in England. But I did not know that he had played here. I only found out afterwards.
Are the assistant coaches, Adrian Ursea and Frederic Gloria, also very important for you in your day-to-day relationships?
Very much so. I am very close to them because they are available, not only for me, but for everyone. They could easily be head coaches with their football-related skillset. We share similar ideas, talk about football like we would any other topic. They are two very important people for me.
Is it important for you to discuss non-football related matters with people like them?
Very important. Like in any sport, the man comes before the footballer. Or in any field for the matter. It is always important that those around you in a professional setting be great human beings (especially), and that is the case at Nice.
Did you ever get the impression that you were constantly judged here?
Being judged by people that you work with is normal. The judgment, from those who are not in the field of football, is worth nothing.
Are the new training facilities also important for a player?
A training facility like this one is like one that you would find in a big club. I would not say that it makes you want to work more, but you feel more comfortable than in the previous one. It has everything: a place to eat, sleep, rest, bring your kids… It is perfect. In my opinion, it is great that the club has focused on that side of things too.
Do you think you could have been champions last year?
Yes. When we celebrated our last match at home (0-2 against Angers), I was not happy. I was angry because I wanted to be champion.
What was missing?
For me, experience. Sometimes we tried too hard to play well, passed too much, moved around too much… But sometimes, you just need to know how to take the ball and blast it out of the stadium! As far as I know, you can win games like that. That is the kind of experience we were lacking.
Dante also believed so. The big players also thought about the title…
That is normal. When you are first for that long over the course of a season, it is unfortunate to not be able to lift the trophy at the end. Especially as, for me, we had the best team. Monaco was very strong for the last ten match days, but we were strong for a longer period over the course of the season, and we deserved it more.
Was beating Paris (3-1) a way to prove that?
We had earned a 2-2 draw against them at the Parc des Princes. They had proven winners with plenty of experience, and it makes sense that people saw more quality in PSG than in OGC Nice. But last year, OGC Nice felt more like a team than Paris Saint-Germain did.
Was that the best OGC Nice match from last season?
Yeah, probably. (Taking a moment to think) The 4-0 against Monaco and the 3-2 against Marseille were also great matches. We managed many great games last year, but maybe the one against Paris is the first one that comes to mind for people.
Did scoring a brace during the first two derbies against Monaco and Marseille help with your arrival?
Goals always help strikers. It feels horrible to run around for 90 minutes without scoring. Running around for 90 minutes to lose, even more so. But I worked especially hard, and when you work, the good results follow. Even if I did not score, I still would think that I would have had a great seasons.
According to the football world, Balotelli signed for a “small club.” Is that still the case?
(Smiling) It is better if they think that so that you are left in peace.
Were you surprised by the quality of some of your teammates?
Yes, especially last year when I arrive and did not know anyone. I have always said that [Wylan] Cyprien, is very good. [Jean Michaël] Seri as well. Allasane [Pléa] is also a very good player. As early as the first training sessions, I was surprised.
Your first encounter with Yoan Cardinale was also great one.
I laugh a lot with him. He is a good guy.
Do you speak French with him?
I try. (Smiling) I do not have the vocabulary yet, but I am able to be understood.
You seem to form a complementary duo with [Alassane] Pléa? Do you enjoy playing with another striker?
What I enjoy is being able to play. What I like with Alassane is that he is the opposite of me, and that we complement each other. I like to get the ball at my feet, he likes to play in space. Last season, we did not always manage great things, but we always found each other on the pitch. I enjoy playing by his side.
Personally, do you feel better than last year?
Is it particularly because of your physical preparation?
It had been four years since I had done any. I feel good physically and psychologically. I look to focus only on football, being healthy and calm, working more on the pitch and in training… And little by little, the results have followed.
Do you think you can you beat your Ligue 1 goal tally from last season (17 goals)?
I do not think about that. I focus on every practice, game and eventually, we will see. But it is true, that I would like to beat it.
Is there any video analysis implemented by the staff?
Yes, I ask Adri (Ursea) or Fred (Gioria) and they prepare the footage on the goalkeeper or defender I ask for. I did not do it very often before. Only when I was coming up against a very, very good player. I am getting into the habit of doing it now because if you do now know a defender, but he knows you, then he has the advantage over you.
The quality of life in Nice is also important for you. You have the beach, the sun…
I enjoy it a lot. At night, there are less people, so I go for a troll on the Promenade. I feel good. The neighbourhood where I live is peaceful.
Can you go for a stroll peacefully?
I do not actually go out that often. But if I want to go eat out, I usually go to Monaco. I know more people there, and from where I live, it is every closer than Nice.
Are you familiar with the Nice castle? In the old part of the city?
The castle, no. But I would like to go if it were open at night, because during the day I can not (smiling). I went to the old part of the city once on a bike taxi (laughing).
How long do you see yourself in Nice for?
Do the Nice supporters remind you of those you had in AC Milan or inter?
Absolutely not. In my previous clubs, the football situation that we find ourselves in would not go down as well. Against Strasbourg, we played very poorly and lost a match that we should never have lost. But the fans were always behind us, singing, and clapping. Having a stand like that is magnificent.
The Populaire Sud ultras cheer for you every game.
Yes, I am very touched by it. Yet, when I signed for Nice, I found out that they were friends with the Inter Milan Ultras. In my head, I told myself, “Here we go again, I am going to get whistled at!” (laughing). In the end, we were able to forge a great relationship. When I would play in the reserves, I would go to the Inter kop end. Later, it sometimes got heated, but that was down to a few idiots. Inter has great fans.
Is your goal to play for a top European club again?
(Straight away) Yes. Every player should set the objective of playing at the highest level possible.
The current period with Nice is difficult. Did too many players leave during the transfer window?
There was some change. I am not the one for controversies or to comment on the work of others. That is the president’s job. The club took decisions and they have their reasons. The club signed good players, but they have to adjust because it is never easy when arriving in a new club.
Is there a crisis in Nice?
A crisis? No! (smiling) Against Marseille, if we did not concede the first goal so quickly, I am positive we would have won. Against Montpellier, Alassane and I had a huge chance. If I scored it, we would not have lost. Against Lazio, if I scored on the play where I dribbled the goalie but put it wide, we would not have lost that match. You need a little luck sometimes. If we had beat Lazio that would have changed everything. If we had beat Marseille, likewise. These are certain circumstances in football, in which things do not always play out like you would have liked.
We had the impression that the team was short of confidence against Strasbourg.
It is not lacking confidence. There are many young players in the team. I heard what the critics have to say, but when the journalists (you included) criticize Nice, they need to understand that that you are not only addressing Dante or Mario. Because personally, it does not affect me. But for a 17 or 19-year-old player, it is difficult to go on the pitch and play well. They have been at this level for perhaps one or two years. They do not have the same experience as a thirty-year old at Real Madrid or Bayern. And it is difficult for young player to not feel considered for their human qualities as well as their football ones.
Do you think the press is too harsh with you?
Personally, I think that the French press is alright. They are not as harsh as the Italian one in regards to football or the English one in regards to private life. But for a 17 or 18-year-old, their feelings are different.
Do you think they are too harsh with Yoan Cardinale for example?
I did not see what was written about him. But for me, “Cardi” is a good goalkeeper. I am not just saying that because he is my teammate. If I thought he were bad, then I would have said it right away. His problem is that he listens to the media too much. He should go on to field with only one thing in mind, not conceding any goals.
He should tell himself that “if a striker gets close, I’ll kill him!” That is all! Football is player on the field, not in the newspapers. I will say it again, he is a young player and I can understand that the criticism may bother him. But if you pay too much attention to them, you will not progress, you will regress. He just needs to train and understand that he is very good. He saved us multiple times last season.
When you let Pléa take the penalty against Marseille, we discovered another side to your personality.
It was 4-2, and I had scored already. Normally, I should have taken it. But I told myself that if he scored, he would be more motivated during the last ten minutes and would help me score the fourth goal. I took the ball and asked him if he felt good about taking it. He said yes, so I told him “go for it, you shoot it!” It was for that and nothing else. I know [Steve] Mandanda, and I told him “Next time, I am taking it!” (smiling)
Just goes to show that Mario can also help his teammates score too.
I want to win. You cannot score every match. Sometimes defenders mark you very well throughout the whole game, and to score, you have to give the ball to a teammate. I am fine with that. Honestly, I would like to score all the time. But if we win and I do not score, I am still happy.
Lucien Favre had some very firm words in regards to your performances, most notably against Napoli. How do you cope?
I had a discussion with the coach after the Napoli game. I told him, “what you said about me is true.” If he wants, he could even say “You were awful, and next Sunday, you are not playing.” But when I played against Napoli, that was my probably my first time back training after my injury. I could not be 100% fit. It was an important game. There was pressure and, in a different context, he probably would not have said that.
Is it possible to get a good result against PSG?
Of course it is possible. It is difficult, but doable.
Is it good that Neymar is suspended?
No, I wanted to play against him. I would have preferred for him to be there.
You voiced your support to him via Instagram in regards to the penalty incident with Edinson Cavani. You seem quite close.
Yes, sometimes we talk together. He is a great person and a football phenomenon. But when I posted that on Instagram, it was just a joke (the Italian striker wrote that the Brazilian did not even need permission from his teammate). People take what I write too seriously. It was just to say that if I were playing with him, free kicks would be for him. I do not have anything against Cavani, he is also good on free kicks. He even scored one against Marseille.
You celebrated your goal against Lazio; a first ever!
In my career, I have played three matches against Lazio. In Italy, I was always cursed! During these last four or five years, against Lazio and Juventus, I never played. I was always suspended or injured. So I never scored against them. Now, that is done!
Returning to Rome is just as important.
I want to go back to win. Not to defend or anything like that. We can only think about attacking.
Do you still believe that you can get called up again to the national team?
If the national team manager (Gian Piero Ventura) calls me up, I am ready. If he does not, I will always support the national team.
Was staying a season longer in Nice, a way of showing him that you are looking for stability?
Considering how things are going, I am showing him that I made the right choice by staying in Nice. I do not talk a lot; I prefer to focus on the pitch. I think that people need to have their own opinion of players on the field. I could say, “Look, against Paris, I will score 3 goals.” In the end, if we lose 4-0, I will look stupid. I prefer to not speak but act. We can only look at what happens.
Do you think you can be a good substitute for the national team?
(Thinks about his answer for a long time) If I am substitute, the one who is ahead of me must be very good. Otherwise, I might legitimately get angry.
Is the playoff match against Sweden a difficult one?
It will not be easy. Especially with the first leg being played there. Knowing Italy, they do not mess up big games. I hope that Italy qualifies because a World Cup is very important.
Does the criticism not bother you anymore?
What bothers me is the criticism on my personal or human level. In regards to football, it does not bother me. In the sense that if I am poor on Sunday, the Monday I will have discussed it with the coach to find out what I did or did not do… I know if I played well or not, I do not need to read it in a newspaper to find that out.
If I played poorly, I can make up for it by working hard from Monday to Friday to be good the following Sunday. It is not that the opinion of others does not not interest me. For me, the only way to progress is to work. I do not like criticism, but it exists and I have to accept. It is part of the job. If you do not accept it, then look for another sport or job.
In Italy, for example, you can find yourself on the front page for going over the speed limit…
I do not understand why they do that. The English tabloids are worse; it is a real problem in England. It is special in Italy. Maybe it is because… (light burst of laughter) there are no famous people there, or very few. So when something happens, it is front cover because people need to see it, not necessarily because they are used it. But I did not know that the French press was more calm. I only saw some videos of Zlatan getting angry at a referee or whatever. I found it funny.
During these last few weeks, you have seemed a lot more calm.
Yes, I am more calm.
What was the click for you?
I feel that people count on me. I have nice and important responsibilities vis-à-vis my teammates. I realised that when I get angry on the pitch, it negatively impacts the team. Even when I am having a bad day, I forced myself to remain calm and encourage my teammates. I would waste too much energy arguing with a defender or complaining when a decision would not go our way. I decided to change my attitude during my last year in Milan.
So there is a sign of responsibility…
I hope so! I understood that for Mario, the most important thing was the teammate, the goal, and, above all, helping my team play well. I scattered myself thinking about too many things. It still happens, but less often, like with what happened with Luiz Gustavo against Marseille. I have no more time to lose.
During a match against Zulte Waregem for example, you were warned, but you did not snap, even though you seemed very close to getting a red.
Yeah, I remember that very well. At halftime, the coach said, “10 more minutes, then I’ll sub you out!” To which I told him, “No, no, I won’t get a red…”
In September, you became a father to Lion, your second child.
I have always believed that being a father changes a man. It has made me more responsible. A kid only depends on you; on what you instill in him. There is nothing more beautiful in the world. I had a daughter and son, just like I have always wanted.
In France, this is called a king’s choice…
Really? I am happy about that! (Smiling)
Lion discovered the Allianz Arena on Sunday against Strasbourg…
Yeah, but he preferred to sleep! (Smiling)
Has your immense notoriety sometimes been the cause of your suffering?
It depends on the lifestyle you have. When I was 17 or 18 years old, every time I went out, I found myself in the news. I was being spied on. It is not easy to deal with that. Nowadays, I have a quiet lifestyle, and when I go out, I make sure that I go to calm places. I never turn down a photo request or anything like that when I go out with friends, but people need to know that there is a time for everything. When I am walking in the street with my baby in my arms, that is not the time to ask for a autograph. But very few people understand that and will say that Mario is an idiot or a jerk or whatever.
What does Mario Balotelli’s life look like?
At home, with the kids. Sometimes I go out for a bite to eat. When I have two or three days to myself, I go visit my family in Brescia. I don’t do anything crazy.
Not much of a partier anymore?
The myth that I go out all the time is false. When I was younger, I would go out once or twice a month. There is nothing wrong about that when you are you 19 years old, except for me, it always in the news the next day, especially in England.
Milan or Inter?
Difficult to choose. I have been a Milan supporter since I was young, but I became professional with Inter. I will be forever grateful. People think I have something against Inter, but not at all.
Manchester City or Liverpool?
Pfff, City. What a stupid question (laughing)
Ronaldo or Messi?
Again, difficult to choose. Messi is the best in world talent wise. But I have a lot of respect for Ronaldo. I admire the effort he has put in to become as good as he is. When he was younger, he was not as good. Mentally, he is a machine.
Mourinho or Mancini?
(Hesitating) Both of them.
Del Piero or Totti?
Del Piero was marvelous. But I always had a soft spot for Totti who played striker like I did.
Ibrahimovic or Cavani?
Beer or wine?
Neither of them.
Blond or brunette?
Mountain or sea?
San Siro or Allianz Riviera?
The atmosphere that the fans put in the Allianz is incredible. Hopefully they will not hate me for this, but the San Siro is unique. It is the most beautiful stadium in the world. When you score in the San Siro, it feels like a bomb has gone off.
Sand or pebble beach?
Sand, but I have only been to the beach once in Nice.
“When I talk to my friends about football and the best strikers in Europe, I often think of Karim Benzema. For me, he really is a world class player. He really is amazing.”
“I will never play for Liverpool again. The fans are incredible, but the executive board is a really disaster.”
“It has been a while since I have last spoke with journalists. I think it is important that the fans know what goes on in my head, what I have on my mind, and what I hope for. Doing it from time to time does not bother me. It is part of the job.”
“My idol? Brazilian Ronaldo, the real Ronaldo. He was just so good.”
“I have very few friends, but I know that they are good ones. They are not by my side because I am Mario Balotelli or because I play football.”
“Family? In my eyes, that is what is most important.”
“When Sneijder is on the field, I let him take free kicks because I know how good he is.”
“I have always enjoyed playing against Italian teams, especially the stronger ones. They play well and are never easy to beat. It would have been nice to beat Napoli, but unfortunately…”