Mario Balotelli eyes move to Arabian Gulf League Champions Sharjah FC

Brescia's Italian forward Mario Balotelli could soon be moving to the UAE. (File/Isabella Bonotto/AFP)
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Updated 07 July 2020

Mario Balotelli eyes move to Arabian Gulf League Champions Sharjah FC

  • Italian’s representative believes successful stint in UAE could boost player’s Euro hopes
  • Balotelli could start playing at Sharjah FC in time for the 2020-21 season

DUBAI: Mario Balotelli is inching closer towards a sensational move to Arabian Gulf League champions Sharjah Football Club in time for the start of the 2020-21 season, his international representative Morris Pagniello has revealed in an exclusive interview with Arab News.

“The negotiations began yesterday, and the club has expressed real interest,” Pagniello, a FIFA certified agent, said. “We were not discounting other options or clubs in the region, like Saudi Arabia or Qatar. But my first preference is Sharjah, because of the standard of living and club itself is one of the most elite in the Emirates. Lifestyle wise, and for his career, I think Sharjah will be the best option for him.”

Pagniello also revealed that Genova International School of Soccer (GISS) will partner with Sharjah Sports Council in an effort to bring some of Europe’s finest young coaches and talent spotters to these shores with a view to developing some of the best local talent around.

Rumors have swirled on social media for several days that the 29-year-old Balotelli, currently at Brescia, will be joining the team which has maintained a hold on the UAE league title in 2018-19 after the current campaign was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s actually something that came up three weeks ago when I was asked to see where we can place Mario,” Pagniello said. “One of the options was Boca Juniors in Argentina, I was pushing for that. But then I mentioned that we work with Sharjah Sports Council, having placed the first two Emirati players in La Liga, and Sharjah FC became our first preference, and our first official interaction with the club was yesterday morning.”

Balotelli’s signing would be a statement of intent for Sharjah, and Pagniello believes life in the Emirates could provide a perfect move for Balotelli.

“He’s had a lot of controversy in his career,” he said. “But this type of life, outside of Europe, and taking football from another perspective and leading up to the Euros, what’s important for him is to play games and score goals. I think this is the right country for him.”

Balotelli started his career at Lumezzane, where he played two first team matches before embarking on a whirlwind career that saw him play for: Inter Milan, where he won the treble under Jose Mourinho in 2009-10; Manchester City, where he, under Roberto Mancini, helped the club claim their first Premier League title; Liverpool, Milan, Nice, Marseille and most recently Brescia.

Though he has resumed training with the Italian club today, it is only a matter of time before he finds a new club, according to Pagniello, and Balotelli has not given up on making the Italian squad for the Euros taking place sent summer.

“Roberto Mancini is considering him, he is one of the best strikers in Italy still,” he said. “Give him the right ambience, where he plays, and he scores goals. I think he’ll be one of the biggest names ever to play here. It’ll be massive for football in the Emirates to have a name like this. And not just for the name, but for the quality.

Balotelli, who has been to Dubai on holiday previously, would arguably be the highest profile footballer to play in the Arabian Gulf League yet, and his representative is hoping that a two-year deal, at least, can be agreed with Sharjah soon.

Despite a nomadic career that has seen ups and downs across Europe, Balotelli, at 29-years-old, is entering the peak of his career according to Pagniello.

“Physically and mentally, I think he’s matured in the last three years,” he said. “He’s been in France, and been the top scorer at the clubs he’s been at, Nice and Marseille. And going back to Italy, I think he’s at his peak. Maybe not fame-wise, he’s not in the big clubs like Man City and Milan. But physically and mentally, he’s ripe.”

Pagniello’s other order of business is establishing the latest branch of the GISS in association with Sharjah Sports Council.

“Over a year-and-half ago we started talks with the Sports Council secretary-general Issa Hilal Al Hazami, to program the development of local Sharjah players and clubs,” Pagniello said. “So we’re looking at opening with Dibba and Khor Fakkan, establishing our academy bases.

“Working with the clubs, from the under-20s down, working with their coaches and also bringing in Spanish and Italian coaches. Sharjah FC have their own program now with Ajax, but we’re looking top collaborate with them for their player pathways, for their youth players to come to Europe.”

One of the GISS ambassadors is former Real Madrid and Spain legend Fernando Morientes, and GISS will be looking to bring that kind of quality and experience to the region in the coming years.

“The coaches will all be ex-players,” said Pagniello. “We are bringing academy coaches, ex-players, even if it was at second division or third division, they would have had to have played at a certain level that they can show the kids.”

Giovanni Tedesco, former captain of Genoa and Palermo, and until recently coaching in Malta, is already slated to be technical director for Dibba’s U20s team.

The coaches will be tasked with developing Sharjah’s young talent to a level where they can play for their respective club first teams, or to seek a career in Europe, something that only a handful of Emirati players have ever considered. Today, more opportunities are arising.

“I am one of the international scouts for La Liga club Leganes, and our major objective is to get players into their system,” Pagniello added. “I’m also the president of Racing Murcia (Third tier of Spanish football) and we have a first team and youth team which we will be using as pathway for these players. So they will go there, train, sign, study and play football.”

Pagniello and GISS will also hope that regional talent will be attracted to Sharjah, and to their particular project.

“It’s a unique program we’re doing and a real pathway,” he said. “A lot of clubs come here and use their logos and have coaches who have never even stepped into the club or actual country, with all due respect. Our thing is to bring players straight from a club, for example the Leganes academy or Inter Milan academy, so we have direct pathway and link, and real interest in developing players. It’s not just about marketing or making clubs richer or for publicity stunts. We’ve signed over 150 players in 10 years from our academy bases.”

Pagniello also sees potential for expanding Genova’s footprint in the region, once the Sharjah academy is up and running.

“Sharjah is our full-time base, and where sports in Sharjah is going, we want to be with them,” he said. “They’ve chosen us and we’ve chosen them, because they’re very ambitious about sports in general. We start from there but we are not excluding that we could end up in Saudi Arabia or Oman. Three years ago, the club sponsor of Leganes was Saudi company called MBUZZ, telecommunications company, so we knew there was a massive market there, and that would be the next market to tackle.”

Having Balotelli on board, as well as the opening of the GISS, could prove a boost not just for Emirati football, but for the whole region. The ball is in Sharjah’s court.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin partner on NASCAR team for Wallace

Updated 22 September 2020

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin partner on NASCAR team for Wallace

  • Michael Jordan becomes the first Black principal owner of a full-time Cup team
  • Former NBA star dabbled in racing before with Michael Jordan Motorsports

CHARLOTTE, N.C.: Denny Hamlin has joined Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan to form a NASCAR team with Bubba Wallace as the driver, a high-profile pairing of a Black majority team owner and the only Black driver at NASCAR’s top level.
The partnership was announced Monday night in coordinated social media posts by Jordan and Hamlin, with Wallace adding his own comment. The posts showed a picture of Jordan alongside a firesuit-clad Hamlin in a motorhome at a race track.
“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners,” Jordan said in his statement. “The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more.”
Jordan becomes the first Black principal owner of a full-time Cup team since Hall of Famer Wendell Scott drove his own race car in 495 races from 1961 to 1973. Scott’s 1964 victory at the Jacksonville 200 is the only win by a Black driver in Cup history.
The NBA great, who earlier this year pledged $100 million over 10 years for initiatives combating systemic racism, said the move into NASCAR is another step toward racial equality.
“I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing,” Jordan said.
Jordan joins former NBA player Brad Daugherty, a partner at JTG Daugherty Racing, as the only Black owners at NASCAR’s elite Cup level.
“Michael and Bubba can be a powerful voice together, not only in our sport, but also well beyond it,” Hamlin said.
Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner and a top contender for this year’s Cup title, will be part of a single-car Toyota entry aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin has raced his entire career for Gibbs, a Hall of Fame NFL coach.
“Eleven years ago I met Michael Jordan at a then-Charlotte Bobcats game and we became fast friends,” Hamlin wrote. “Not long after, I joined Jordan Brand as their first NASCAR athlete. Our friendship has grown over the years and now we are ready to take it to the next level.
“Deciding on the driver was easy — it had to be Bubba Wallace.”
Wallace is the only Black driver in the Cup Series and this season used his platform to push for racial equality. The 27-year-old successfully urged NASCAR to ban the display of the Confederate flag at its events.
Wallace is winless in 105 Cup starts over four seasons, but he has six career victories in the Truck Series. He’s been hampered by mid-level equipment driving the No. 43 for Hall of Famer Richard Petty and, until this summer, the team struggled to land sponsorship.
“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that.
“Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”
There’s been speculation for months that Hamlin was organizing some sort of ownership group as he expects NASCAR’s business model to become more favorable for team owners when the “Next Gen” car is released in 2022. NASCAR rules prohibit a current driver from owning a team and driving for another, but Hamlin works around the policy with Jordan as the principal owner.
“Starting a race team has been something that Michael and I have talked about while playing golf together over the years, but the timing or circumstances were never really right,” Hamlin said. “It just makes sense now to lay the foundation for my racing career after I’m done driving and also help an up-and-coming driver like Bubba take his career to a higher level.”
In a statement, NASCAR welcomed Jordan to the series.
“His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport,” NASCAR said.
Jordan became a partial owner of the Bobcats in 2006 and bought the team outright in 2010, restoring the franchise to its original Hornets name. Hamlin has been a longtime season-ticket holder with courtside seats along the visitors’ bench.
Jordan dabbled in racing before with Michael Jordan Motorsports. He owned an AMA Superbike team and had one win in 10 years. Jordan has twice traveled to the NASCAR season finale to watch Hamlin race for the championship. Hamlin, who’s 39, is still seeking his first title.
“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said. “The opportunity to own my own race team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.”
Wallace, who has cobbled together about $18 million in sponsorship deals since he made racial equality his platform, had already announced he was parting with Petty.
“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” Wallace wrote. “I am grateful and humbled that they believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”
Jordan and Hamlin purchased a charter for their team from Germain Racing that guarantees Wallace a spot in the 40-car field every week.