Football Features

International football’s teacher’s pets

By Muhammad Butt

International football's teacher's pets

Published: 21:00, 1 December 2022

There was an interesting international call-up earlier this year: Mario Balotelli back in the Italy fold in January.

The polarising striker last played for the Azzurri four years ago in 2018, appearances which ended another four-year absence from the national side since 2014.

The man responsible for both of those streak-busting Balotelli call-ups? Roberto Mancini, the manager who had a fractious relationship with the striker first at Manchester City a decade ago, then for Italy as well.

But Mancini has never been able to turn his back on Balotelli. Not fully. So that got us thinking about other players you could best describe as their manager’s “teacher’s pet” for one reason or another. We’ve looked at the manager’s of the biggest nations on the international scene and come up with each one’s teacher’s pet.

Roberto Mancini and Mario Balotelli

  • Nation: Italy
  • Appearances: 3

Mancini signed Balotelli for Manchester City back in 2010 and faithfully stuck by him even during the striker’s many wayward phases. The Italians both left the club in summer 2013, and when Mancini was made Italy manager in 2018, Balotelli was in his first squad and team. In fact it was Balotelli who scored the first goal of the Mancini era.

Things appear to have soured between the pair when, just last year, Mancini said: “Clearly, it was disappointing for all of us who knew [Balotelli] as a person and a player that in the last five or six years he was unable to do what he was capable of doing.”

But in true teacher’s pet fashion, Mancio has been unable to quit on Balo, and recalled in January, though he didn’t actually appear for the Azzurri. Still, the fact he was back in the fold, even temporarily, underlined the true love-in between player and manager.

Didier Deschamps and Olivier Giroud

  • Nation: France
  • Appearances: 107

One of the most distinctive things about Didier Deschamps’ time as France manager has been the near-constant inclusion of Olivier Giroud as the side’s leading striker. No matter how fierce the criticism of Giroud’s selection, or how he went through the entire 2018 World Cup win without ever registering a shot on target, Deschamps has stood by his man, even starting him for both of France’s first two games in Qatar at 36.

Last year, with Giroud entering his second year riding the bench with Chelsea, Deschamps finally recalled the magnificent Karim Benzema to the squad and the starting XI. But now, with Giroud playing again with Milan, the enviously-handsome forward has returned to the fold; assisted, of course, by Benzema’s recent injury. Under Deschamps, Giroud has played over 100 times for his country and is now the nation’s joint-record goalscorer alongside Thierry Henry.

Luis Enrique and Gavi

  • Nation: Spain
  • Appearances: 16

Luis Enrique hasn’t been Spain manager for a ridiculous amount of time, sure, and one could have included Ferran Torres in here, who is dating the boss’ daughter, Sira Martinez. The fabulous Ferran was still just a bit-part player for Manchester City when Lucho built his Spain attack around him, and he has played more for Spain under Lucho than anyone else.

But the answer here is obviously the 18-year-old Gavi. Sure, he’s magnificent and it makes sense now that Luis Enrique has played him, but recall that Lucho simply chucked him into the starting XI in major games for Spain before Gavi had even completed a full 90 minutes for Barcelona. The trust in this kid has been unbridled by Enrique, and he is repaying his faith in Qatar.

Gareth Southgate and Conor Coady

  • Nation: England
  • Appearances: 10

This is kind of a cheat because while Gareth Southgate’s absurd overplaying of Harry Kane even when he’s injured, or his unshakeable trust in Jordan Pickford, may seem odd, they are rooted in good performances.

Conor Coady, however, has been a constant presence in Southgate’s international squads despite never being among the five best English centre-backs. Southgate has been so impressed by the now Everton man that he’s previously put him into the squad’s leadership group.

“Conor Coady has been a great addition into [the leadership group], for sure. His performance and the way him and Tyrone [Mings] organised the defence from the back really helped to keep us in that game,” Southgate said after Coady did well during a 0-0 draw with Denmark back in 2020.

Hansi Flick and Thomas Muller

  • Nation: Germany
  • Appearances: 15

One of Hansi Flick’s first acts when becoming Bayern Munich manager was recalling Thomas Muller to the side and making him a central part of the side. And when Flick became Germany coach recently, he made sure that Muller’s recall remained firm and he was to be a key part of the squad. Back in 2021, Flick even said of Muller: “there will never be someone like him again.”

Tite and Lucas Paqueta

  • Nation: Brazil
  • Appearances: 37

Tite has played a lot of players during his time as Brazil coach, but most of them have made sense as names. Lucas Paqueta, however, did not make sense when he was first called. Oh, he makes sense now alright, but back when Tite handed him his debut it was a somewhat surprising selection. But Tite has gone from simply just playing him to making him a fundamental part of his starting XI every time Brazil take the field. He has even previously donned the no. 10 shirt in Neymar’s absence! Major teacher’s pet vibes.

Lionel Scaloni and Nicolas Otamendi

  • Nation: Argentina
  • Appearances: 38

Argentina has seen tremendous success under Lionel Scaloni and we will therefore be reticent to criticise any of his decisions but the coach’s constant selections of the often inconsistent and erratic Nicolas Otamendi continues to defy belief. Otamendi just isn’t one of the two best centre-backs Argentina can select, he’s not even among the three best! Yet he keeps on playing! A partnership of Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martinez just seems to make so much more sense.

Roberto Martinez and Michy Batshuayi

  • Nation: Belgium
  • Appearances: 43

There were two candidates for Roberto Martinez’s teacher’s pet, two guys who have been near ever-presents in his squad seemingly no matter what: Nacer Chadli and Michy Batshuayi. But the thing is, Martinez appears to have gotten over his infatuation with Chadli in 2021. Batshuayi, however, continues to be selected even though he doesn’t play for long stretches at a time.

Of course, Batshuayi does produce whenever called upon, mostly because he starts easier games to afford Romelu Lukaku some rest. But such is Belgium’s talent pool, you would think Martinez would call up a greater variety of young attackers to test them out, just in case one of them proves more promising in terms of being able to replace Lukaku. But nope. It’s always Batshuayi.

In fairness, there was a choice for Martinez to test out the likes of Jeremy Doku, Lois Openda or even Charles De Ketelaere for Belgium’s opener in the World Cup against Canada, but no, Batshuayi got the nod. And you know what, he delivered. It’s counted for little now, though, with Belgium out!

Louis van Gaal and Daley Blind

  • Nation: Netherlands
  • Appearances: 34

Louis van Gaal is the ultimate manager-as-teacher so in essence every player that he picks regularly is his teacher’s pet. Van Gaal’s schoolmaster demeanour has him constantly imparting knowledge to players young and old, so in this instance it makes sense to pick the player he’s used the most, which is the incredibly handsome Daley Blind.