Euro 2012: Italy finally learns to love Mario Balotelli
It is a story which pretty much sums up why so few in Italy mourned Mario Balotelli's departure from Milan to Manchester two years ago. The Internazionale squad had just returned from a training camp in the United States when they went their separate ways, most to take a team bus from the airport with the manager but some to make the journey by car. The bus was not long into its journey when it slowed to approach a commotion at the roadside.
And there was Balotelli, being pressed for his details by the traffic police who had just stopped him, "going fast" according to one individual on the coach. Several weeks later, Balotelli was gone fast from Milan.
"Unpredictable" is how one member of the coaching staff from those last days of Balotelli's Inter career describes him, though that is the polite, on-the-record assessment. "It is simple. He is crazy," says another. "He likes the money which lets him enjoy the life. He's not clever."
All of which might explain the banner draped at the perimeter of the Inter training ground at Appiano Gentile, north west of Milan, as his move to Roberto Mancini's City inched closer. "F*** Off Balotelli," it read.
Absence hadn't seemed to have made Italian hearts grow fonder six days ago when The Independent reported the testimony of Balotelli's adoptive sister, Cristina, that her brother had intended to give the Italian media the rough end of his tongue before Leonardo Bonucci clamped a hand over his mouth, after he scored against Ireland. Within 30 minutes of publication, the Ansa agency had re-interpreted that story as an instance of Balotelli insulting his nation's reporters.
All of which was before the electrifying events in Warsaw, which had public buses in Rome bearing the legend "Why always me?" instead of stating their destination yesterday, while the 21-year-old's bare torso dominated front pages the length of the nation. Tuttosport's headline Li abbiami fatti neri! ('We beat them black and blue'), referencing the racists who abused Balotelli in the European Championship, was affectionate though highly risky, in the week that Gazzetta dello Sport has characterised him as King Kong.
"People's view of Balotelli has changed overnight," said La Stampa's Paolo Brusorio. "Before this game he was not loved a lot but it was finally appreciated last night what quality he brings to Italy. He was a boy who began to behave like a man."
Comments which will cause those who know Balotelli best to shudder, because they know that no part of this individual's development is an overnight event. In fact, the only individual guaranteed to knock any sense into him stands 5ft 5in tall and is now in her 70s.
Sylvia Balotelli, the trained nurse and indefatigable foster-mother who raised the future Manchester City footballer from the age of four, is the one who ordered him to sit down and apply his mind to a subject she felt should concern him, during one of her visits last year to the flat he occupied on Manchester's Deansgate. It is hard to imagine a woman further removed from the madness of Mario's football world.
She wanted to talk about my children and to try out her English in doing so when we met last year, before stepping into a car which was inconceivably large for one of such small stature for the drive to the airport. But she shares with Cesare Prandelli and Roberto Mancini a view that the answer to one of world football's most perplexing management challenges is to mix orders with understanding. Silvia once forbade a teenage Balotelli from attending football training because of his behaviour, only to find he had crept out and made the 50-minute walk from the family home at Brescia to Mompiana anyway. By the time he arrived, she had called the coach of the team – who sent him straight back.
Mancini toughs it out too, his public disclosures that Balotelli is not a player he can trust being one example of that same strategy. The Balotelli family are of the view that Prandelli is now doing precisely the same.
Prandelli upset Mancini by rapidly censuring Balotelli over the Carrington training ground dart incident – a City academy scholar was the striker's target in a moment of high jinks – when the story had actually broken several months earlier and was old news to City. Prandelli also dropped Balotelli from Italy's squad after he nearly took Goran Popov's head off in a match at Dynamo Kiev in March last year. The striker's sister sees discipline veering towards harshness as an essential commodity.
"There is the same calm character in both Mario's coaches and both are men who talk to the players as well as be firm when they need to be," Ms Balotelli said of Prandelli and Mancini. "The two are very similar. They will both drop him if they think they need to. Sometimes Mario wants to do things his own way but he has to learn."
It is curious to see how Manchester, which judges him rather less harshly than Italy, suits him in some ways that Milan simply does not.
Balotelli doesn't care for journalists of any nationality though he is left alone more in the UK to fraternise with his girlfriend Raffaella Fico than in Italy, where he is predominantly a showbiz icon (the player's family actually consider his relationship with Ms Fico to have been rather stabilising, incidentally). England's determination to stamp on racist behaviour is also especially welcome to Balotelli. The player's agent, Mino Raiola, was recently impressed with the Football Association after talks of an unspecified nature relating to combating racism in the game.
It remains to be seen whether that same fascination in which England holds this player can be engendered among the Italians, who have known for more than a year that this striker would be their great hope in these championships.
It was in March, after Prandelli's decision to drop him from the Italy team who lost 1-0 at home to the United States because of his conduct in England, that the Italian media felt the game illustrated the nation's need. "Call, Mario. Call for the love of God. Telephone Prandelli and swear you'll be good," a Gazetta headline implored back then. Prandelli, employing his tough love again, said in the same breath as dropping Balotelli that "he can still have an extraordinary career, but there is no justification for certain types of behaviour".
Prandelli spoke in the conditional tense about Balotelli's prospects on the world stage yesterday and it is a fair bet that the question being posed by those Roman buses will probably be as appropriate in five years' time as they are now. But that won't extinguish the Italians' hopes for a while. "We think he has great potential but we don't love his eccentricities in the way the English seem to do," said Daniele Billi, a fan from Tuoro, near Perugia, yesterday.
"He still has to mature further. But everyone thinks that last night was a turning point in the career of a really exciting young talent."
Confidence in the Euro: Mario becomes poster boy for defiant Italy
Balotelli v Merkel
Mario Balotelli has endured an indifferent relationship with his home nation's press since entering the team.
However, after scoring two stunning goals to put Italy on the verge of European Championship glory, newspapers across the country were unanimous in their praise of the 21-year-old.
Italy is struggling with the European economic crisis and the national team entered the tournament after a match-fixing scandal had hit the country's national leagues.
While many Italian national newspapers focused on how their side's march to the final could not have come at a better time, others chose to take the opportunity to rip into German chancellor Angela Merkel, resented by many for hectoring Italy to make cuts in spending.
The front page of Libero shows Manchester City striker Balotelli striking a ball with Merkel's face on it. The headline reads "VAFFANMERKEL" which loosely translates as "Fuck off Merkel".
Il Giornale joined in the fun, or abuse depending on how you look at it, with the headline "Ciao Ciao Culona", literally: "Bye bye big arse".
"It's not Monti but Balotelli, who with a double destroys Germany and sends us into the final. Frau Merkel, it's you who is leaving the Euro."