Pride of Italy: the making of Mario Balotelli

If there is one thing I took from Italy’s humbling of Germany it was to radically change my opinion on Mario Balotelli. And I’m sure I’m not alone on this.

I also learnt betting against Cesare Prandelli’s Italy is a sure fire way to empty the bank balance but that’s another matter.

For it was Balotelli’s sumptuous double that claimed the headlines and dumped Joachim Low’s German team out of Euro 2012.

Perhaps it is the unpredictability of Balotelli’s nature that lulled me into the belief that for all the plaudits the 21-year-old has received in his short career, it was all a bit of a ruse. His record at Manchester City – just shy of a goal every two games – is impressive enough for a striker not always deployed as Roberto Mancini’s first-choice.

Yet, the moments of madness, on-pitch tantrums, off-pitch mischief and red cards have blighted his time in England and critics – including Mancini – have doubted whether he is worth the trouble.

But he is eminently watch-able, a likeable character and a good footballer. How good, I was unsure – until Italy’s improbable run to the final of Euro 2012. This Italian team were meant to improve on the disastrous group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup but were never viewed as genuine tournament contenders – see the 14/1 pre-Euros price as evidence.

But Prandelli – a modern think-tank manager – has assembled an exciting, young squad, likely only to get better over the next few years. And after a three-goal tournament, it is highly probably that Balotelli will be at the heart of it. After fears that he was wasting his talent, Balotelli now looks to have assured his place on the international scene. This has been his breakout moment.

The partnership with Antonio Cassano – another player having a fine Euros – has blossomed. On paper, you’d be forgiven for thinking this would be Italy’s Achilles’ heel, but it has been quite the opposite. While the world lauds Andrea Pirlo for his dictatorial displays in midfield, it can be easy to forget that without the movement of those around him, Pirlo’s game would be hindered.

The courage Prandelli has shown to pair Cassano and Balotelli was calculated. The off-the-ball movement of the two terrorised the German defence, leaving one of the best performers in Poland and Ukraine – Mats Hummels – reeling. His partner, Holger Badstuber, fared no better as he was left glued to the ground for Balotelli’s first.

They are the two most intelligent strikers in Italy’s squad and have been given the freedom to be proactive this tournament. There are no restrictions on their movement and no demands on their work-rate – though that has not been under question this summer.

The talents Cassano possesses are not a mystery – though how he has summoned them following such a tough year – remains one. Balotelli however, has often flattered to deceive. A moment of brilliance can be lost in the furore surrounding a reckless tackle, a stamp or a wayward pass. In fact, this was most evident in the game against Spain. Balotelli’s nonchalant flick of his boot on the touchline to control a pass destined for the stands was brilliant. His ponderous finish when in on goal, less so. And he was remembered for that missed chance.

After two goalless games, but performances that suggested an understanding with Cassano was forming, Balotelli was dropped. A switch in formation allowed Prandelli to assess his other options but it was the final flourish in a 2-0 win over Ireland that made headlines. Balotelli’s excellent overhead kick capped Italy’s win and briefly tempted the volatile striker to hit out at his critics – something Leandro Bonucci put a stop to immediately.

That callow moment was one of a couple of incidents that reminded us of Balotelli’s impudence but as Bonucci clasped his hand over the striker’s mouth, it ushered in a new maturity as Italy headed to the knock-out stages.

The build-up to England v Italy contained plenty of Balotelli narrative. He is the only member of the Azzurri squad to play in the Premier League and the talk focussed on his battle with club-mates Joleon Lescott and Joe Hart. Though he didn’t score, Balotelli proved a constant thorn in the side of the English defence, finding space and troubling Lescott and John Terry in equal abundance. Much like his run for the second goal against Germany, he sprung the offside trap, only to be denied by a combination of Hart and Terry.

After two hours of football, Balotelli showed his mettle, stepping up to take the first penalty and coolly stroking it past Hart. His celebration – something so rare – showed the value he placed on the spot-kick. It was another riposte to his critics.

And that has been the true story of Balotelli’s Euros. He has only played 13 times for Italy but lacked the support and acceptance of the press. That was until his double against Germany.

‘Pride of Italy’ adorned the front page of Gazzetta dello Sport’s website with a picture of a topless Balotelli, flexing his muscles and proving another point to pundits too quick to write him off. The same image was met with ‘We beat them black and blue’ on Tuttosport’s front page today – a telling innuendo. Balotelli’s rise has been difficult for some on the peninsula to stomach but for pure footballing reasons – as it should be – he deserves the adulation he receives.

Whether all of this truly represents Balotelli’s breakout remains to be seen, but for the first time, I, like many others, are left wondering just how good he could be. His first test will be in Sunday’s final against Spain. His second, retaining the Premier League. In years to come, this tournament could be referenced as the making of Balotelli.

Unless he gets sent off in Kiev…

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