COMMENT: The former Juventus coach has sent a clear message to the enigmatic striker that he will have to change his attitude if he is to have a future with the Azzurri
Two days before announcing his first squad as Italy coach, Antonio Conte declared: “The man counts more than the player. I have always relied on men.” For Mario Balotelli, the Peter Pan of Italian football, that was only ever going to mean one thing: exclusion.
The decision to leave the forward out of the 27-strong panel for Thursday’s friendly with Netherlands and next week’s Euro 2016 qualification opener against Norway still made headlines, of course. Everything Balotelli does has long been considered news in Italy. He is a journalist's dream and a coach's nightmare.
Jose Mourinho found him "unmanageable" during their time together at Inter, while it is extremely telling that new AC Milan boss Pippo Inzaghi was not in the least bit perturbed to see the striker sold to Liverpool before the close of the summer transfer window, arguing that what the Rossoneri would lose in talent, they would gain in team spirit.
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Prandelli belatedly accepted that Balotelli was a liability - both on and off the field; a forward just as adept at tearing a dressing room apart as a defence. As Ignazio Abate, who has played alongside Balotelli for both Milan and Italy, said on Sunday, “Mario is a truly great player, but he needs to improve in other areas.”
By leaving Balotelli out of his first squad, Conte has now made an instant statement of intent: the team comes first. Players will no longer be picked on what they might do as an individual, but what they will do for the collective. The new Italy boss will always pick perspiration over potential.
“You can have talent but if you don’t put yourself at the service of the team, it doesn’t interest me," the former Juventus boss stated.
Conte has also made much of the fact that players will have to earn their place in his squad; that reputations or past successes count for nothing. "I don't gift anything to anyone and I have also said this to the boys," he explained. "Nobody has ever gifted me anything in life. I have had to struggle to get here.
"There is no preclusion against anyone. But one has to reach the national team on merit."
However, Conte’s alleged meritocracy is already under scrutiny, as he included Sebastian Giovinco and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo in his original squad, before then calling up Fabio Quagliarella when Osvaldo was forced to withdraw through injury. Those three forwards managed four Serie A goals between them last season. Balotelli, by contrast, hit 14.
Crucially, though, the thing that Giovinco, Osvaldo and Quagliarella have in common - other than dreadful recent records in front of goal - is that they all played under Conte at Juventus last season. Not one of them saw regular game time yet it is worth noting that Quagliarella revealed after his first call-up to the Italy squad in November 2010 that he always enjoyed a fine working relationship with Conte – despite never having been anything more than an impact sub during the coach’s three-year stint in Turin.
In that context, while Conte claims that he was not sending a message to Balotelli, it is hard to interpret it as anything but. The 45-year-old has made it clear that he would rather have three players he did not even deem good enough for a starting berth at Juventus in his Italy squad ahead of Balotelli.
The 24-year-old could react with characteristic petulance to such an insult. Or he could take it like a man. If he's to have any chance of an Italy recall under Conte's stewardship, it will have to be the latter.