How Nice saved Mario Balotelli's career - from misfit to main attraction

NICE, France -- Mario Balotelli was recently asked who he would rather sign for: Real Madrid or Barcelona. Presumably the person asking the question did so with tongue firmly in cheek -- after all, Balotelli is damaged goods; a talented but errant star who blew chances at an assortment of top European clubs. That's the accepted narrative anyway.

And yet, over the last 14 or so months, Balotelli has been quietly -- or as quiet as life can be for him -- re-establishing himself as one of the top strikers in Europe, at a small club on the south coast of France. In 11 starts this season for OGC Nice, he has nine goals, adding to the 17 in 25 starts last season. Since moving to France he averages better than a goal every other game: in his career as a whole, it's closer to one in three.

Perhaps this shouldn't be a huge surprise. Nice have become the go-to destination for high-profile players who have lost their way, to rehabilitate their careers. Before Balotelli came Hatem Ben Arfa, a rogue talent considered not reliable enough by Hull, but after a year with Nice he emerged as one of the best playmakers around before returning to his previous status after moving to PSG.

The most recent arrival at Nice has been Wesley Sneijder, formerly a glowing No. 10 who conducted Inter Milan to a Champions League win in 2010, but who in the summer had his contract at Galatasaray cancelled by mutual consent. The Dutchman is not in quite the same category as Balotelli and Ben Arfa, but he required a fresh start in his career, and where better to do that than Nice?

So why are Nice so good at rehabilitating the careers of wayward stars?

"It's a family business," Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivere tells ESPN FC, sitting in Nice's freshly-built training facility. "Every element of this environment is designed to make it easy for players to enjoy what they do. Every member of the club works hard to make it comfortable for players to work here. And when we say comfortable we don't mean material comfort and those benefits -- it's about psychological comfort and confidence."

In some respects you could compare Balotelli, Ben Arfa or Sneijder to someone who works in the city but moves to the country to escape the noise of life. Nice isn't a "football" town, and thus doesn't have the same pressure as places like Milan, or Marseille, or Liverpool. Players can relax a little more and concentrate on their game: they have the space to figure out what works for them. It's the sort of environment that seems ideal for football's more complicated personalities.

"We want players to enjoy playing here," says Rivere. "We made it clear for players that they were coming here for the 'essence' of playing, to rediscover the pleasure of playing football." The idea is to remind players why they started in the game in the first place.

Rivere, a fan and local businessman who made his money in property, arrived in 2011 at a club that had been drifting for some years. In his own words, this was a club "with a bad reputation and no strategy."

He set about changing that, appointing Claude Puel as head coach in 2012, who took Nice from the brink of relegation in 2012 to fourth in Ligue 1 twice. His successor Lucien Favre went one better and finished third last season. This campaign has been trickier: injuries, a squad overhaul and Jean-Michael Seri's on-off move to Barcelona have disrupted the opening few weeks, but you wouldn't bet against them being up there again in May.

All of this has been done with a budget roughly a quarter of the €222m that PSG spent on Neymar over the summer: not PSG's overall budget, just what they spent on one player. Nice had to think of a way to try and win an unfair game: their own version of moneyball involves the recruiting of ostensibly waning stars and getting the best out of them.

This obviously involves some degree of risk. Ben Arfa once described Rivere as the president with the biggest "cojones" in France, and indeed it does take some degree of fortitude to sign players that nobody else seems to want to touch. But in some respects, their approach is less about "cojones" and more innovation combined with simple necessity. "We have to be more creative and find more solutions to make up for our budget," Rivere says. "We have no money for top players at the top of their game."

The element of risk is then further diminished by their financial limitations. "We have no money for three or four year deals, so often we need to sign one-year deals." Ben Arfa left after his one dazzling year, but Balotelli signed up again, and Sneijder arrived on similar terms. It's an arrangement that seems to suit everyone.

The first thing Rivere, the club's scouts, sporting director and manager (he's keen to emphasise it is each signing is a collective decision) do is look past the reputation and at a player's quality. With players like Balotelli, Ben Arfa and Sneijder, that is not really in doubt. After that, they consider whether their reputation is deserved. "Is he a good person, deep within?" asks Rivere. For that, their method becomes a little less scientific.

"It's all about the intuition you have with a player," says Rivere. "We don't speak to anyone else [who has worked with them before]. We meet with the player, spend some time with him, chat with him. For example, Balotelli: I spent a couple of hours with him, and I said 'OK, he's definitely a good person.' It's all about the initial connection you have with a player. You can be wrong... and when it's a top player, if we're wrong it can damage the entire group."

But Rivere and his team haven't been wrong that often. What's interesting about Balotelli in particular is that in his season or so at Nice, not many stories about his off-pitch life have emerged. Frustratingly he was sent off three times last season, but what's been surprising about Balotelli is that there haven't been many surprises.

"What really surprised me is that he integrated very easily into the group," says Rivere. "He is a superstar, but he hasn't behaved as such. He is really easy going with everyone, and he integrated easily with everyone."

Persuading these stars to sign for a club who were battling against relegation a couple of seasons ago could be a tricky business, but the success that Ben Arfa enjoyed meant others followed. The chance to live on the beautiful French Riviera doesn't hurt either, nor does Rivere's powers of persuasion. "It's a game of seduction," he says.

Recruiting this sort of high-profile player is half of the plan, and the other half is developing youngsters. Players like Vincent Koziello and Malang Sarr have come through the ranks, 20-year-old winger Allan Saint-Maximin arrived from Monaco in the summer and Adrien Tameze, still young at 23, came in from Valenciennes. Part of the goal with recruiting big names is that they can help these younger players on their way.

"We tell the trainers to teach the youngsters that winning and losing is not the most important thing," says Rivere. "What counts is to play quality football. This is what we teach them from the beginning."

The other benefit is slightly less romantic, in that of course signing these players will help increase the club's profile. But, insists Rivere, that's not in their primary thoughts:

"We never hire a player for marketing reasons, because we just don't have enough money for this," he adds. "Of course, players like Balotelli or Ben Arfa or Dante have raised the profile, but this is secondary in the recruiting process. It definitely becomes important afterwards, but it only becomes important if the player succeeds."

Inevitably, for a club whose annual budget hovers around the €50m mark, if their players do succeed they might be tempted away: Seri nearly moved to Barcelona, and after a year on the south coast Ben Arfa signed for PSG. Trying to compete when there is one financial behemoth dominating the French game must be frustrating, even if Rivere -- perhaps diplomatically -- denies that, citing the publicity that PSG's pricy band of superstars bring as a blanket positive for Ligue 1.

But on Friday, Nice face PSG, a battle of resources so starkly opposed it's tough to compute that they're competing in the same league.

"It's all about working even harder," says Rivere. "We always try to find new challenges with the club, and improve in a constant way. Having one or two good seasons doesn't mean anything: we have to improve in a constant way, at every step, to keep growing, and not just think those one or two seasons are enough."