Self-centred, immature, mercurial, maverick, super-talented. Pick your description of the man expected to spearhead Italy’s tilt after firing the Azzurri to the Euro 2012 final.
Of the choice between Balotelli and Ciro Immobile to lead Italy’s line against England on Saturday, Roy Hodgson says: “The headache is [Cesare] Prandelli’s but both will be given maximum respect; they are very good players.”
As Immobile is the far less experienced player, it would be a big surprise if Prandelli opted for him. That there is even a debate offers the latest reminder of the question mark that hovers over the former Internazionale, Manchester City and now Milan forward.
A man who has won the Champions League, three Serie A titles, the Coppa Italia, the Premier League and the FA Cup at 23 should have answered any questions regarding his right to a starting berth long ago. Yet after an indifferent season, the doubt continues.
Two years ago Balotelli illustrated why he has seduced a host of managers into deciding the off-field antics are worth living with for moments that win games and titles.
Sergio Aguero has gone down as the hero of City’s triumph of that 2011-12 season for his late winner in the 3-2 final day win over QPR. Yet without Balotelli’s pass to Aguero, when the Italian might have taken a shot himself, there would have been no end to City’s 44-year title drought.
Weeks later Balotelli became the first black footballer to represent Italy at a major tournament and, after initially struggling, emerged as a star of Euro 2012.
Lasting 56 minutes of the 1-1 draw with Spain in Italy’s opening match, Balotelli was replaced on 69 minutes in the following game against Croatia. He finally scored in the 2-0 win over the Republic of Ireland as a late substitute.
Do not be surprised to see a similar pattern as Italy’s Group D campaign unfolds. Prandelli says: “Clearly we have some healthy competition up front. Everyone has a chance. Whoever doesn’t play will have to accept the choices.”
Prandelli has indicated a reluctance to choose Balotelli and Immobile together. So when it comes to deciding who should be the lone forward to face England, Prandelli’s thoughts may turn to how Balotelli took the contest to Germany in the Euro 2012 semifinal.
In the biggest game of his career Balotelli did not disappoint, scoring twice to blow Joachim Low’s team away in a 2-1 win.
The tournament ended in disappointment as Spain trounced Italy 4-0 in the final but Balotelli’s pivotal role for City and Italy meant he could claim to have crossed the Rubicon to leave unfulfilled potential and immaturity behind.
Or so it seemed. The following campaign at City would be the last of his three at the Etihad, and the poorest. Roberto Mancini finally lost patience with the striker in January, when they became embroiled in a training ground scuffle.
That was two weeks after Balotelli came close to taking City to a Premier League tribunal to fight a £340 000 fine for missing 11 matches because of suspension. Balotelli’s exit came laced with words of “love” for Mancini as the man who somehow always stuck by him.
Fast forward a year and the hope for Prandelli is that Balotelli’s engagement to Fanny Neguesha, announced on his Instagram, will allow an inner peace he can take into the World Cup.
Balotelli and the World Cup are about to discover whether there is to be a mutual love-in, too. – © Guardian News & Media 2014