Temperamental talent at home on the biggest stage
The son of Ghanaian immigrants has finally silenced his numerous detractors, writes PADDY AGNEW
FINALLY, A star is born. The front page editorial in yesterday’s Gazzetta Dello Sport said it all. The image of Mario Balotelli, naked to the waist, proud, powerful and defiant in the moments after he had scored Italy’s second goal against Germany in Warsaw on Thursday night represents one of the defining images of these European championships.
The bad boy, the subject of endless speculation about racist behaviour from fans, the seemingly unrealised talent had finally triumphed over all his demons, internal and external.
When Italian coach Cesare Prandelli met the media yesterday, the Irish Times asked him if we could now conclude that “new Italian” Balotelli is the symbol of his Italy: “He is not the symbol, the Azzurri shirt is the symbol and don’t call him an immigrant, he’s an Italian,” replied Prandelli.
Have his performances in Poland finally laid the ghost of racist behaviour in Italian football, asked a colleague: “Racism is not just our problem, it’s a problem for European football,” said the manager.
Prandelli, as he has done throughout this tournament, was careful to play down the Balotelli effect. The Italian coach’s handing of his talented striker has been exemplary, using every possible occasion to take the heat off a player who seems to attract plenty of attention.
However, it is hard to believe Italian football will ever be the same again after these finals. For a 21-year-old black player who has trod a long and difficult road in his relationship with racist fans, Euro 2012 represents an outstanding success, both in terms of football and the battle against racism. Not only that but Balotelli is the first black Italian to achieve this level of success in the Savoy Royal blue jersey.
Balotelli’s story has been told many times but it is worth repeating. If it is true that he has not always helped himself with his headstrong attitude, it is also true he has often encountered problems not of his own making.
Born in Palermo, Sicily to a Ghanaian migrant couple, Thomas and Rose Barwuah, who soon afterwards moved north, he was abandoned by them as a baby in a hospital in the Brescia area. Having spent most of his first two years in an institution, he was formally adopted by the Balotelli family from Concesio in the province of Brescia in 1993 and was being brought up along with two brothers and one sister.
As a promising young black player with Serie A side Inter Milan, however, he quickly became the object of racist abuse from opposing fans. In particular, he proved to be a bete noire for the Juventus fans, annoying them by scoring two goals as a 17-year-old in a Juventus-Inter Italian Cup win in January 2008.
One year later, so strident were the racist chants aimed at Balotelli during an April 2009 Juventus v Inter game in Turin that Juve ended up being ordered to play a subsequent Serie A game behind closed doors.
At the time, Balotelli showed a deal of common sense, dismissing the chants and commenting: “I’m more Italian than those idiots.”