Balotelli following in Meazza's footsteps
After 29 months of gilded exile at Manchester City, Mario Balotelli is back in Milan. Not to renew acquaintances at La Pinetina, training ground of his old club Inter Milan, but to call for duty at Milanello, the headquarters of Inter's fierce rivals AC Milan. The Italy forward was one of the highest-profile overs in January, and in the process he added his name to the growing list of players who have represented the city's two great football powers. He is also continuing one of Milan's most curious traditions, with a long line of gifted Italian strikers taking up the Rossoneri cause after first proving their worth with I Nerazzurri. It is almost as if these intrepid souls seek recognition from both halves of the divide at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, the venue named after the first illustrious marksman to make the switch.
A Milan native himself, Giuseppe Meazza was initially keen to join Il Diavolo as a youngster but was turned away for being "too skinny". Unperturbed, he took his talents to Inter instead and quickly caught the eye of Fulvio Bernardini, going on to spend 13 trophy-laden years with the club. Then, in 1940, with a pair of FIFA World Cup™ wins under his belt as well as three Scudetti and a trio of top-scorer titles, he sparked one of the biggest football stories of the period by signing for Inter's arch-rivals. His abilities were admired by fans of both persuasions, however, and now the two sets of supporters gather to watch their heroes in the stadium that bears his name.
With Meazza having blazed the trail, Italian-Argentinian forward Antonio Valentin Angelillo followed his example by topping the Serie A goal charts with Inter in 1959 before claiming the European Cup Winners' Cup and championship title with Milan nine years later. Italian international Aldo Serena then took the trend even further by moving not once but twice from I Nerazzurri to I Rossoneri, ending his 1981-82 and 1987-91 spells at Inter with stints in the colours of Milan from 1982-83 and 1991-93. One of five players to win the Scudetto with three different clubs, Serena captured a pair of trophies during his time with both city neighbours, celebrating a league title and UEFA Cup win at Inter and two league crowns with Milan.
The traffic has intensified since the turn of the century, but Milan have not always benefited as much as they might have hoped. That was certainly true in the case of Ronaldo, who plundered 59 goals in 99 sparkling appearances for Inter between 1997 and 2002 before pitching up at Milanello in 2007 after five seasons with Real Madrid. The Brazilian forward described the deal as a "dream" when he returned to the city, yet the dream rapidly became a nightmare as off-field problems and numerous injuries plagued his stay until he left for his homeland in February 2009. Il Diavolo were similarly unfortunate with Christian Vieri, the well-travelled striker who played for 15 clubs crossing the Rubicon at the start of the 2005/06 campaign. Despite 103 strikes in 144 outings for Inter, the powerful centre-forward found the net just once in eight matches for their rivals before opting to join Monaco.
As for clinical Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo, he also left a less than searing impression at Milan, despite six goals in the club's 2004/05 UEFA Champions League run – including two in the unforgettable final which his side lost to Liverpool on penalties at the end of a 3-3 draw. The difference was that the man who hit 35 goals in 64 games for his country had hardly set Inter alight either, managing a mere seven strikes in the 2002/03 campaign.
In contrast, both factions retain fond memories of Swedish taslisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose 57 efforts helped Inter win three successive Serie A titles between 2007 and 2009 before he returned from Barcelona to claim the Scudetto with Milan in 2011. He remains the only player to have topped the goalscoring charts with two different outfits – let alone two teams from the same town.
'Now it's up to him'
"I've wanted to play for Milan for a long time," announced Mario Balotelli after touching down at Malpensa airport in Milan. "When this possibility arose, I hurried to seize it." Eccentric though he may be, there could be little doubting the sincerity of those words given Balotelli's previous declarations and displays of affection for his new club. Indeed, this is a player who has been spotted wearing Rossoneri socks during training sessions with La Nazionale.
"He's going to a club that knows how to work with youngsters, away from the pitch as well – now it's up to him," said Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, commenting on the deal. "If he puts faith in the people who truly want what's right for him, he can reach the level of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo," added Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini, who struggled to harness Balotelli's talents but remains hopeful for the future. "I have a lot of affection for him."
Having made the switch, the 22-year-old is now getting to know a squad featuring Giampaolo Pazzini – another former Inter striker – plus 20-year-old Italy team-mate Stephan El Shaarawy and 18-year-old French forward M'Baye Niang. The latter pairing can already rival Balotelli for carefully sculpted haircuts and together they could soon be forming an explosive attacking trio for Milan – before perhaps answering the call of their cross-town rivals.