Sunday’s quarter final showdown between Europe’s two football super powers Italy and England is very much all about one man. Mario Balotelli carries the hopes of a nation on his shoulders, but will the darling of the British tabloid media be in one of his destructive or his destructively brilliant moods – with ‘Super Mario’ you just never know what to expect.
While Balotelli commands superstar status in England where his natural footballing brilliance, mercurial talent, off-field antics and sometimes erratic behaviour have filled millions of column inches, in Italy the feeling for Balotelli is one of hopeful expectation.
The fact that Balotelli is one of the first black players to pull on the Azzurri shirt is a side issue. Italians are well use to seeing players from all sorts of backgrounds lining out in their club sides, which Italians support just as fervently, sometimes even more so, as the Italian national team.
There aren’t two nations in Europe or even the world, where football is such a central theme in everyday life. There are three main daily newspapers in Italy dedicated solely to sport and so invariably are made up of 90% football. The national obsession for all things football extends far beyond what happens on the pitch elevating them to iconic status.
What makes Balotelli different is that he has done just that in England. Probably the last great cross over from English to Italian football was Paul Gascoigne in the early nineties when he created a storm both on and off the pitch playing for Lazio. Italians took him to their hearts in much the same way as the English do with Balotelli. Unfortunately for Gascoigne his journey was to prove all the more difficult after retirement, a fact felt with great sadness and sympathy by the Italian public. It is everyone’s hope that Balotelli will benefit from the experience of those who went before him.
Balotelli represents a new multicultural generation of Italians and you could say that’s a lot to carry on a young man’s shoulders who is simply set on enjoying life. Living the dream of so many can carry it’s responsibilities but Mario Balotelli is one of those rare free spirits that can take life on his own terms and people love him for it.
Let’s not get into the endless list of tabloid stories surrounding him or the rumours of his acts of random kindness around Manchester that have attained mythical status. He has real star quality, a sense of humour and a scary talent. The English public are enthralled with this Italian, particularly the Manchester City fans, the Italians are yet to be convinced of his greatness. Italy has had so many truly world class players that until he delivers on the greatest stage of all he will only represent his potential.
Whatever happens on Sunday Balotelli is the future of Italian football – if he so chooses to be. The faith shown in him by Italian manager Cesare Prandelli has been unswerving and he has dealt with his foibles in a firm but fair manner, something it would seem, Mario responds to, but that faith will have to be repaid at some stage. His wonder strike against Ireland answered some of his critics but it is still an issue that the two-man strikeforce that Prandelli built the new Italy around, Cassano and Balotelli, have yet to score while the other is on the pitch.
The spotlight will be on Balotelli throughout the game and how he responds will one of the main factors in deciding the outcome. England have not dazzled this tournament and have played a more pragmatic football as ascribed by Roy Hodgson. Balotelli will be the true ‘fuoriclasse’ on the field and if he can match his brilliance from the last game you can not only see Italy beating England, but potentially going all the way
by Hugo Mc Cafferty