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.”
To prove that point, too, Balotelli turned down an offer to play for his natural parents’ homeland, Ghana, preferring to wait and see if one day he would get the call from Italy.
In the meantime, however, Mario abandoned his short-lived flirtation with common sense. For example, throughout his two years at Inter Milan, Jose Mourinho regularly found fault with “the boy’s” attitude, accusing him of not pulling his weight in training.
Perhaps a breaking point with Inter came in April 2010 on the night of the club’s 3-1 Champions League semi-final, first leg win over Barcelona, a crucial step on Inter’s triumphal progress towards winning that year’s trophy. Having been brought on as a 74th-minute substitute for Argentine striker Diego Milito, Balotelli played well but reacted badly when the Inter fans gave him the bird for a somewhat flamboyant and very wide shot on goal at a moment when Inter more than anything needed to hold onto possession.
When the full-time whistle blew and at the very moment Inter were celebrating one of their biggest triumphs of modern times, Mario tore off his shirt and angrily threw it on the ground in protest at the treatment of him by his own fans. Essentially, Balotelli’s time at Inter ended there and then. His petulant gesture on such a big occasion could not be forgiven. Indeed, there were those who suggested the shirt-throwing incident was proof that, in his head, Balotelli had already set out on the long and winding road that would end up at Manchester City.
Talking about Balotelli yesterday, Prandelli pointed out that, thus far, the player has done everything asked of him, going on to suggest we have not seen the best of him yet: “He has the ability to read the game, he is not just a one-dimensional striker.”
Prandelli argues that Balotelli has been disciplined, concentrated and determined throughout these championships, a claim that might bring a wry smile to Man City faces. As illustration of his claim, Prandelli pointed out how, after Mario had picked up a yellow card against Germany, his striker came over to the coach’s bench and said: “Don’t worry, Mister, I’ll be careful, I won’t pick up another card.”
Furthermore, Prandelli also reported how, after he had taken Balotelli off against Germany when he saw the player go down with cramp, the player insisted he could still play on for at least another five minutes.
Problem was, however, that Antonio Di Natale was already on the pitch in his place. Asked about Balotelli’s future, Prandelli was yesterday categoric, saying: “He is a very talented player and he is lucky because he is in the hands of a great coach in Roberto Mancini at Manchester City. So far here, he has done exactly what we wanted him to do. Great players like him play for the team, they should never think that they have to win the game on their own.”
Perhaps Balotelli is lucky to be in the hands of not one, but two great coaches.