Mario Balotelli stood shirtless, his intimidating muscles flexed, staring straight ahead. He refused to betray any emotion. Indeed, he refused to do anything other than stand and stare. But then his teammates engulfed him, and, through a crowd of sweating bodies, his face slowly softened into the faintest trace of a smile.
On Thursday night, Loew’s German players stopped being world beaters and instead became nearly-men. Italy progressed to the final, where they will serve as the last obstacle in Spain’s pursuit of a historic third consecutive tournament victory. Antonio Cassano, who suffered a stroke in October, elevated himself from endearing bad boy to national hero. Andrea Pirlo commanded midfield with his customary elegance and poise, but the contributions of others overshadowed him. Italy’s was the ultimate team performance.
The victory margin should have been wider than 2-1. Late in the game, with Germany stretched, Antonio Di Natale and Claudio Marchisio both missed glorious chances to extend Italy’s lead. Ozil’s late penalty added unnecessary tension to the last few minutes. At the final whistle, the cameras swiveled in the direction of Balotelli, a player who has enjoyed his fair share of media attention over the last six months. This time, though, the fireworks were confined to the playing field.
Ahead of England’s quarterfinal with Italy, James Milner, one of Balotelli’s Manchester City teammates, suggested that there are two Marios: a cold, apathetic one and a passionate, driven one. In his typical deadpan, Balotelli replied, “He’s lucky to know two of me.”
Certainly, two Balotellis showed up on the score sheet in Warsaw. One headed a Cassano cross past Neuer after twenty minutes; the other lashed home a rasping shot ten minutes from half time.
Two months ago, Balotelli was red carded at The Emirates as Manchester City’s title challenge collapsed, and a seemingly endless hate campaign followed. Now, after setting up the goal that secured the same title, he is the hero of a European Championships semifinal. Balotelli never does things by halves.
His return to Manchester City in August will probably coincide with the club’s habitual summer spree. City will seek to expand their sparkling front line. Three days ago, Balotelli’s future with the club might have been in serious doubt, but those two goals should be enough to convince Mancini that “Super Mario” is well worth the hassle.
Just as the public begins to accept him, the eccentric Balotelli is finally producing high-level football. Shameless mirth has replaced the mock horror that used to greet his escapades. Every time he visits a women’s prison, every time he pacifies a school bully, his legend grows.
Balotelli didn’t need to score two goals in a major semifinal to justify the hysteria that constantly surrounds him – his hilarious off-pitch behavior is enough excuse for that. But he needed to score to establish his place among Europe’s most accomplished players. His enigmatic personality defines his footballing style but also detracts from it. The same impulse that compelled him to set off fireworks in a friend’s bathroom enabled his glorious opportunism against Germany. In the outside world, Balotelli’s sheer intensity cause mayhem; on the football pitch, it inspires miraculous goals.
If Italy prevail on Sunday, Balotelli will add another medal to his bursting trophy cabinet. He has already won multiple league titles, the FA Cup, the Coppa Italia and, best of all, the Champions League. However, the Spain match represents his first shot at international glory – and, based on yesterday’s performance, it won’t be his last.
After the England game, Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s leading football newspaper, published a controversial cartoon depicting a large, hairy Balotelli atop Big Ben, supposedly an allusion to the killer gorilla, King Kong. The cartoon has been roundly criticized by anti-racism organizations, but, even taken at face value, it misinterprets Balotelli’s style. He is more artist than monster: he has touch, vision and the cleverness it takes to manipulate the ball in tight corners.
Spain will present Balotelli’s unreliable temperament with a stern test. Defenders Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos know how to get under a striker’s skin. After all, tiki-taka is as frustrating to play against as it is to watch.
The final is, of course, a rematch of Italy’s tournament opener. Balotelli failed to perform in that game, missing several gilt-edged opportunities before making way, sulkily, for Antonio Di Natale. Di Natale, who went on to score Italy’s only goal in that match, hasn’t featured since the end of the group stage, largely because of Balotelli’s blossoming partnership with Antonio Cassano.
Cassano’s marauding strike play drags defenses out of position, creating gaps in which Balotelli can operate. The two players seem to understand each other instinctively; perhaps that relationship has something to do with the wild idiosyncrasies they share.
If the pair produces a goal or two in the final then — who knows? — we might even catch a glimpse of that elusive Balotelli smile.