The Nomadic Superstar

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Mario Balotelli’s impending transfer to Liverpool is a striking development (pun tally: 1), in more ways than one. First and foremost, the price tag just screams “bargain!”; the £16 million fee Milan are likely to accept for one of the most talented under-25 strikers in European football seems incredibly good value, only £4 million more than Shane Long cost. Though prone to the odd sulk, the Italian is as devastating a front man as any in the world when he wants to be. Of course, English football fans are thoroughly acquainted with the Italian from his tempestuous time at Manchester City, a period punctuated with jaw-dropping goals, iconic celebrations, and off-field turbulence. Almost equally engrossing about the prospect of Balotelli’s return pertains to the latter; extracurricular episodes, from eccentric philanthropy to indoor fireworks, seem to follow Balotelli around like a headstrong puppy high on fizzy-whizzy sherbet. Almost as much as his on-field prowess, the sheer unpredictability of Balotelli is reason enough to welcome him back to English football with open arms (and safety goggles). Thirdly, after tracing the young man’s already storied career, it’s tempting to place Balotelli in a select group; that of the nomadic superstar.

A handful of players have spent their careers travelling like gypsy aristocrats from one European superclub to another. It’s no coincidence that most of these players, like Balotelli, have built their success on a firm foundation of grain-fed, AAA rated egocentricity. Super Mario began his career in his native Italy, signed at 15 to his first major club, Inter Milan, in 2006. He quickly became a wunderkind sensation with Inter: in 2007 he scored twice at Juventus, proving crucial in a 3-2 away win in the Coppa Italia quarter final. In 2008, he became the club’s youngest ever Champions League goal scorer (18 years, 85 days), scoring in a 3-3 draw against Anorthosis Famagusta. However, it wasn’t all goals and records for Mario in Milan. He was viciously abused by racist crowds on numerous occasions, being specifically targeted by Juventus fans. The volatile cocktail that was Balotelli and Jose Mourinho degenerated into an expectedly caustic situation by the end of the 2009/10 season, the season in which Inter won the Champions League. Balotelli left Inter amid a tidal wave of criticism from Mourinho and his team mates. One of his most infamous parting gifts to the club was to wear the jersey of city rivals AC Milan on an Italian talk show. Ah, classic Mario. He was sold to Manchester City and his time there was largely more of the same; key goals in big matches, literal fistfights with management, and zany off-field hijinks. He visibly argued with Aleksander Kolarov over who should take a free kick in a match against Sunderland. His “Why Always Me” undershirt, revealed after scoring against Manchester United, is the stuff of legend. He even took legal action against the club over a fine levelled against him for missing 11 games in the 11/12 season because of suspension, tribunal action he eventually dropped. He left the club amidst an atmosphere of infamy and scorn, but also a sort of fondness from the fans. Super Mario had been, if nothing else, a sublimely guilty pleasure.

He left for his boyhood club AC Milan, and was welcomed with joyful raptures. His time there began stupendously, scoring freely and keeping largely out of trouble. But as Milan began to slide down the Serie A table, and the good mood deteriorated, so did Mario’s performances. He missed his first penalty in September last year, against Napoli. As it became more and more apparent that he alone couldn’t stop Milan from morphing into a mid-table team, his discontent reached fever pitch. Originally looking for a fee of around £20 million, Milan seem certain to accept less to offload Balotelli.

Big clubs played for so far:

  • Inter Milan
  • Manchester City
  • AC Milan
  • Liverpool (transfer pending)

Samuel Eto'o of Chelsea

There are others like Mario. Not many people know that Samuel Eto’o began his career in Real Madrid’s academy, though he never made an appearance for the first team. After leaving Madrid, he spent 4 years at RCD Mallorca, winning the Copa del Ray in 2003. His proper step up to the European grown-ups table was after his transfer to Barcelona, where he contributed to a period of sparkling success. He won the league in his first season, then was the league’s top scorer the next. He also scored the opening goal in the 2006 Champions League final, which Barcelona went on to win 2-1. He placed third in the World Player of the Year Award, and won his record third African Player of the Year. Injuries somewhat hampered the remainder of his time at Barca, and some odd behaviour did much to sour the club’s opinion of him. In 2007, to the bemusement of manager Frank Rijkaard, he refused to come as a substitute, claiming he hadn’t had enough time to warm up. Still, he ended his time at Barcelona with aplomb, scoring in the 2009 Champions League Final victory and finishing as one of the top ten all time goal scorers at the club.

He was Barcelona’s make-weight in a man-and-cash swap for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, moving to Inter Milan the next season. Eto’o was, with Balotelli, involved in Inter’s Champions League victory that year. He kept his excellent form up during the 10/11 campaign as well, scoring an astounding 37 goals for the season. In 2011, in what was a surprising move for many, Eto’o was signed by Anzhi Makhachkala, the newly billionaire-backed Russian Premier League club. They made him the world’s highest paid player, but despite a raft of other big name signings, and Suleiman Kerimov’s cash injections, the club failed to turn a team of champions into a champion team. Eto’o fell off a lot of people’s radars during this time, stagnating in what was widely considered a circus team in a backwater league. When Kerimov eventually checked the balance sheet, and then noted the empty trophy cabinet, he scaled back his funding of the team and Eto’o, along most of the other marquee names, was sold.

He moved to Chelsea, and reunited with Mourinho, for a season-long sojourn, with mixed results. He scored some sneaky goals for the blues, showing that at least some of his predatory sense remained, but the season was largely disappointing for Chelsea. He’s currently a free agent and is making sultry eyes at various clubs around Europe. Liverpool are allegedly keeping him on hold should anything happen to the Balotelli deal.

Big clubs played for so far:

  • Real Madrid (sort of)
  • Barcelona
  • Inter Milan
  • Chelsea

Arjen-Robben

Arjen Robben is another one of these nomadic superstars. Having established himself in the Eredivisie with PSV, he moved to Chelsea and was a key part of Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge of the London club. He won two Premier League titles and an FA Cup with Chelsea, and the sight of Robben and Duff flying down the Chelsea wings became a familiar one. His spell at Chelsea wasn’t devoid of controversy either, most notably an incident involving the sending off of Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina. Robben was widely criticised for his exaggerated reaction to Reina pushing his face, a reaction that resulted in the keeper’s immediate expulsion from the match. The incident, among others, established a reputation for diving that would follow him the rest of his career. He was sold to Real Madrid in 2007, arriving just before the second coming of Perez and the Galacticos. Even though he was an effective contributor in the title winning 2007/08 season for Madrid, and a constant starter in the 08/09 season after that, he was moved on to make way for Ronaldo and Kaka in August, 2009.

Bayern Munich saw the value in snapping up Real’s offcuts, and what a player he turned out to be for the Bavarians giants. It took a while for Robben to really get going at Bayern, despite the German Footballer of the Year award that he earned during his first season. The road to the top was pockmarked with injuries to Robben and heartbreak for Bayern. The 2011 Champions League final loss to Chelsea, in Munich, was an intensely harrowing ordeal. But glory of the treble-winning 2012/13 season did much to drown out the past sorrows, and Robben was named man of the match in the 2-1 victory over rivals Dortmund in that season’s Champions League final. He scored 21 goals last season for Bayern under Pep Guardiola, and has opted to stay with them for the season just started, choosing not to accept countryman Louis van Gaal’s invitation to join Manchester United. He’s even started well this term, scoring in Bayern’s opening match.

 Big clubs played for so far:

  • Chelsea
  • Real Madrid
  • Bayern Munich

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One of the earlier nomadic superstars, Clarence Seedorf has, to the rabid delight of Champions League colour commentators everwhere, famously won the European Cup four times with three different clubs. And, despite the stunning fatigue that this wholly overused factoid inspires, it alone justifies his inclusion as one of the most notable examples of the superstar nomad. He began his career in Holland with Ajax. Known as part of the de Kabel trio of himself, Patrick Kluivert, and Edgar Davids, his Ajax team won the 94/95 Champions League final, defeating future employers AC Milan 1-0. He then moved, via Sampadoria, to Real Madrid in 1996. Here he developed his habit of scoring goals from barely conceivable distances, blooting in an unbelievable thunderbastard against city rivals Atletico Madrid in 1997. He became incredibly important for Real, helping them to win the league and the Champions League. He was sold to Inter Milan in 1999, and during his two years there, though struggling to win trophies, he continued to smash in howitzers. It was when he moved to AC Milan that he found his most settled destination. He spent a decade there, and won two Champions League titles and two Scudettos with them. One of the most well rounded midfielders to ever take the field, his tireless work ethic, constant goal threat and defensive muscularity made him a perfect partner for Milan’s Brazilian dynamo Kaka. Along with the cultured distribution of Andrea Pirlo, Paolo Maldini’s supremacy in defence, and Inzaghi, Shevchenko and Crespo up front, Seedorf’s era at Milan saw the growth and development of one of the most successful modern teams, with Seedorf at the heart.

Big clubs played for:

  • Ajax
  • Real Madrid
  • Inter Milan
  • AC Milan

20140318_Zlatan Ibrahimovic His star shines everywhere_reuters

And now, finally, we come to the leader of this glittering bunch, the Big Cheese of club-jumping, a serial sampler of European nobility and the ultimate superstar nomad; who else but Zlatan?

A player of such barnstorming talent that no club can hold on, and a title winner at a staggering 6 different clubs in 4 different countries. Zlatan gets what he wants, and generally what he wants is titles, titles and more titles. Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, and now Paris Saint Germain, Ibrahimovic has won 11 league titles in total, and a litter of other domestic trophies. Only twice in his career has he scored less than 15 league goals after making more than 25 league appearances, at Juve in 05/06 when he fizzled with 7 goals in 35 appearances, and at Milan in 10/11, where he fell one goal short with 14. He has been consistently effective wherever he has played, and has the overflowing trophy cabinet to prove it. His constant restlessness could be attributed to an unquenchable thirst for new challenges, or maybe it has something to do with the fact that he has an ego so big it could blot out the Sun. Consequentially, his team mates are largely forced to play in the shade, and only his immense ability on the pitch has stopped the issue from ballooning out of control. At Barcelona, however, it did prove too difficult an obstacle to overcome, and his time there, after the aforementioned trade from Inter, ended just a single season after his arrival. Still, his resume is second to none, with only Champions League triumph missing from it, something he plans to achieve with PSG. An explanation of sorts could be the fact that international success with his native Sweden is always likely to escape him; his insatiable accumulation of top-tier employment is a way of compensating for this. Whatever the reason, what is unquestionable is the position he deservedly holds as the ultimate journeyman luminary.

Big clubs played for so far:

  • Ajax
  • Juventus
  • Inter Milan
  • Barcelona
  • AC Milan
  • PSG

They spend their lives tasting morsels from all the finest banquets, dining with the patriciate of football, though only for a few precious seasons before moving on. Theirs is a journey of privilege (and a testament to their talent), where a coveted position, for them, is quick to sour. This pushes their rambling existence onwards in search of further foreign riches. Mario Balotelli is still only 24. He could become the greatest nomad of them all.

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