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…

Pietro Vierchowod: Profile – 6/4/1959

For someone who played professional football until he was 41, the prospect of adding another year to the tally must register fairly low in his list of concerns. Pietro Vierchowod turned 53 on Friday and the man once described as ‘an animal’ by Diego Maradona had a career worth recalling. Suitably I’m here to take a compact look at the accomplishments of the man known as ‘Lo Zar’.

The source of the majority of my early football interest came via the much-cherished channel of Football Manager and it’s various iterations. The Italian leagues were introduced in 1996 and a 35-year-old Vierchowod was patrolling Milan’s squad. The thing that stood out was his surname – it didn’t match his Italian nationality. A sweeper too? Not many of those specialists existed within the game. He was an intriguing entity and when I discovered him knocking about as a free transfer five years later, it was obvious that this was a man worth knowing.

The son of a Ukrainian Red Army soldier (hence the ‘Zar’ nickname), Vierchowod’s sterling reputation owed as much to his longevity as his achievements in both club and national football. In a career that spanned 24 years, racking up a mighty 647 club appearances he managed to squeeze in two Scudetto’s, a Cup Winners Cup, four Coppa Italia’s, a Champions League and a World Cup.

Standing a short 5ft 11ins for a centre-half but with a unique turn of pace that elevated him above his defensive peers, Vierchowod bridged two Italian eras, adapting admirably to the changing tactical worlds thrown at him. Initially a classic ‘stopper’, Vierchowod forged his reputation as a fierce man-marker – a vital line of defence in the Catenaccio systems that had started to disperse in the 80’s. As Italian football cast off the shackles of the defensive model that continues to stereotype the reputations of Serie A clubs, Vierchowod became one of the few defenders of the time to span both the 80’s and 90’s with his reputation intact.

Asked who was his toughest opponent was Gary Lineker spoke of the defender: “Vierchowod. He was absolutely brutal and lightning quick.”

He began his career at Romanese in Serie D, making three appearances in the 1974/75 season though his first notable employer was Como in the north of Italy, where he spent five years. The 1978/79 campaign saw him establish himself at the heart of the defence and attain successive promotions from the third tier. Back in Serie A, Como gave him the platform to display his talents and halfway through their two year stay in the top flight he moved on to Sampdoria. He was taken to the Luigi Ferraris by oil tycoon Paolo Mantovani but given two years in Serie A with Fiorentina and Roma. His first year at the Viola was a success and saw the club finish just one point behind Serie A winners Juventus in second place.

Vierchowod’s impressive campaign encouraged Azzurri boss Enzo Bearzot to take him as an unused member of the Spain ’82 squad where he would go on to collect a World Cup winners medal. The following season saw his stock rise further as he helped his new club Roma capture the Scudetto for only the second time, keeping 17 clean sheets and winning the Italian Player of the Year award.

In 1983 he finally moved back to his parent club, Sampdoria, where he would further enhance his standing in the game. The ‘Zar’ nickname not only alluded to his heritage but his influence on the pitch and in the dressing room. He would go on to appear for Sampdoria 358 times in Serie A and helped lead them to their first and only Scudetto in 1990/91. He won four Italian Cups, won and finished runner-up in the Cup Winners Cup as well as a runners-up finish in the European Cup in this time.

By now, Vierchowod had competition in the form of the great all-Italian Milan back-line of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti. The formation of one of the greatest defences in Italian history saw the same chemistry often supplied to the national team and as such Vierchowod never secured a permanent place in the starting line-up. That said, he did acquire 45 caps – further testament to a distinguished standing in the Italian game. He was also part of the 1990 World Cup squad that finished third.

During his time at Sampdoria, Vierchowod adapted his game and became a more forward-thinking defender, often winning possession and surging from the defensive line, helping to launch counter-attacks.

To draw a modern comparison, Phil Jones’ style of play is reminiscent of the dynamism Vierchowod had during his days at Sampdoria. The competitive spirit and vivacity that separates Jones from his generation did so for Vierchowod throughout the 80’s and 90’s. As well as playing alongside Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini, Vierchowod also faced some of the most fearsome strikers in the world as Italian football attracted the likes of Marco Van Basten, Rudi Voller, Careca and Diego Maradona.

On Vierchowod, Maradona eulogised: “He was an animal, he had muscles to the eyelashes. It was easy to pass by him, but then when I raised my head, he was in front of me again. I would have to pass him two or three more times and then I would pass the ball because I couldn’t stand him anymore.”

Vierchowod left Sampdoria in 1995 at a time where you’d be forgiven for thinking his time was up. Quite contrary, he moved to Juventus and played in the Champions League final against Ajax, helping stifle the likes of Patrick Kluivert and a 19-year-old Kiki Musampa no less! He helped take the game to penalties and picked up a winners medal aged 37.

As his career wound down, he turned out for Milan in a final big-club swansong before settling down at Piacenza where he helped them battle relegation to Serie B for three seasons. As his physical attributes waned, Vierchowod operated as the sweeper in a three man defence. He famously said in 1999: “I used to be much quicker than everyone else – now I’m just as quick as them.”