Three years ago, a 21-year-old Mario Balotelli was the centre of the universe.
His two first-half goals in the Euro 2012 semi-final against Germany had propelled Italy into the final of the competition. He celebrated his second by removing his shirt and standing resplendent, muscles tensed and face etched with arrogant disdain. Joyous teammates flung themselves at his impressive torso.
At around the same time, Graziano Pellè’s future seemed uncertain. The lanky 26-year-old southern Italian was technically still a Parma player but they didn’t really want him. He had spent the second-half of the 2011/12 season on loan to Sampdoria in the Italian second division and managed four goals in as many months. He would start the following season on loan to Dutch side Feyenoord.
Since then, the timelines of each player have taken a dramatic swing in direction. Tonight will see Pellè spearhead his country’s attack against England in Turin, whilst Balotelli will be kicking his heels at home, and perhaps posting an Instagram snap or two if he’s bored. It’s no reflection of talent but rather one of application; a determination to forge a career instead of letting it just happen.
Balotelli was hardly born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He experienced a complicated and troubled upbringing. But he was blessed with the kind of natural technique and God-given talent that marks out a prodigy. Pellè, despite his clear strengths, was a far less conspicuous player and made it to his mid-twenties hovering some way below the international radar.
In spite of the clear disparities in gifts, opportunity and age, the fortunes of both have taken dramatic turns. Balotelli has continued to show odd glimpses of his undeniable skills and love of occasion, but he has stagnated and seemingly stopped trying to improve. Pellè, on the other hand, has developed facets to his game and turned himself into an extremely well-rounded striker.
For club and now country, the Southampton player has become a key component in a relentless, pressing style of play. He has the work rate of a man who has had to earn every move and accolade and a physique molded from hard graft. Balotelli is a stationary fixture that doesn’t naturally fit with the plans of either Brendan Rodgers or Antonio Conte. He hasn’t learned to adapt or broaden his skill set.
Tonight’s game may be a meaningless friendly, but it is also a testament to motivation and self-improvement. Graziano Pellè deserves to spearhead his country because he is a product of his own singular ambition. Mario Balotelli doesn’t even make the squad. A man so often characterised as an enigmatic maverick is in danger of becoming the one thing he fears the most – irrelevant.