Much of the coverage, naturally, centered on Balotelli’s reputation, his truculence and his rebelliousness. Many felt that Nice — like Liverpool, Milan and Manchester City before it — would struggle to control Balotelli, to restore his focus. The move was dismissed, in some quarters, as a publicity stunt. Rivère was more confident.
“I do not often do this,” he said, “but I looked at everything that had been said about him. I asked to see the videos of his matches, the good and the bad. I saw 20 bad things and just one good thing.
“One day, after training at Manchester City, he met a small boy. He asked him what he was doing there, and the boy said he did not want to go to school, because he had been bullied. So Balotelli took the boy to school in his car, so the boy could feel like a star, and sorted out the problem. I said that if he had done this, he must have a good heart.”
Rivère has been proved right: Working to a customized training plan, Balotelli has thrived, emerging as a central plank of Nice’s title challenge. He has scored 11 goals in 18 games; though there have been controversies, they have happened to him, rather than because of him: a red card that was later rescinded, and racial abuse directed toward him during a game at Bastia.
“When a player arrives, I guarantee only one thing: that if they come to play here, they will find a family club, a good atmosphere, a good group,” Rivère said. “They will find a smile.
“When you have a player who is in trouble, the problem is often in the head, not the feet,” he continued. “If you had talent in the past and lost it, with us you have more chance of rediscovering the pleasure of playing football.”
That is not to say Rivère is running some sort of corrective institution for the chronically wayward. Nice benefits from Balotelli just as much as he benefits from Nice, if not more; on the field, of course, but off it, too. Rivère referred to the Italian as a marketing “accelerator.”
That is particularly important as the club tries to grow. Nice is one of the oldest soccer teams in France, and one of the proudest, too: It is the only French club with its own anthem — “Nissa la Bella,” or “Beautiful Nice,” in Niçois dialect. When its new stadium opened, Nice arranged for the turf from the center circle at its old home, the Stade du Ray, to be laid into the field, a symbolic gesture by club officials to worried fans that though the location had changed, Nice’s heart remained the same.
And yet the city seems too genteel, too well heeled, to feel as soccer-crazed as Marseille, for example, a couple of hours down the Côte d’Azur. Soccer tends to thrive where it is the single unifying factor; at first glance, that is not the case in Nice.
The mountains are an hour away, Monte Carlo even less. There are beaches and nightclubs, money and glamour. All act as competition. So signing Balotelli was not just a way to garner international attention, but another effort to draw fans away from the various other delights of the area and into the stadium.
“We try to make matches a complete experience,” Rivère said. He has always demanded that the style of play be “popular,” appealing. The club regularly hands out free tickets to local children, and it has refitted all of its V.I.P. areas; some do not close until the small hours of the morning. There was even an ice rink installed outside the Allianz Riviera before Christmas.
It would be unfair to dismiss all of those initiatives as gimmickry, an artificial imposition of a soccer culture. Beneath the surface, the bond between this city and this club is strong.
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