Mario Balotelli puzzles us all, admits Italy manager Cesare Prandelli
It was the moment when the Italian team showed what they thought of Mario Balotelli – an uncertain kind of love.
When the Manchester City striker ran towards the bench after scoring his first goal of the tournament against Ireland – and only the second of his international career – the Juventus defender, Leonardo Bonucci, placed his hand over his mouth to mask whatever he was trying to say. This was despite admitting that, since Balotelli was speaking English, he had no idea what he was talking about or to whom.
There was a brief argument with Thiago Motta, who must have thought Balotelli was trying to get himself sent off, and then what he needed most: a few hugs. Perhaps more importantly, Italy's final group game in Poznan was watched by 20 million Italians, some of whom have struggled to accept Balotelli as a natural No 9 for the Azzurri; sometimes because of his erratic behaviour, sometimes for more sinister, racial reasons.
"I have no idea if he was giving vent to his feelings about being named on the bench for the Ireland game," said his manager, Cesare Prandelli. "I don't know if the words were directed at me and I haven't asked him about it because I don't want to spoil the moment for him. But his 20 minutes against Ireland were his best of the tournament."
Prandelli seemed to suggest that many of his players did not really know what to make of Balotelli, whose starting displays against Spain and Croatia were erratic and sometimes desultory. He argued he could not force the 21-year-old to smile but added that he had to understand that everyone in Italy's training base near Krakow was trying to help him.
"The spirit of the squad is important," he said. "All the players here have to give it their all. Nobody in our team wishes him ill; he has to understand that we are here to help him become a true champion. What Bonucci did was typical of our squad, his first thoughts were that Mario was going to get into trouble and he needed to protect him.
"Look, Mario is a golden boy but he has to make a real jump in quality if he is going to become a champion. He has got to learn to accept criticism or a place on the bench – and, if he doesn't, the squad is going to become a little more closed off to him."
As Fernando Torres has shown, goals against Ireland should not be taken at face value and Balotelli needs to perform in the quarter-finals and beyond for Euro 2012 to be counted as a proper landmark in his career.
Nevertheless, by escaping the group, something they failed lamentably to do in South Africa two years ago, this campaign has already made par for Prandelli. Arriving in Poland in the teeth of the match-fixing allegations that have enveloped Italian football, it might have been expected they would cave in.
Instead, in the words of the impassioned Facebook appeal posted by their captain, Gianluigi Buffon, Italy have employed "brains, heart, courage and sweat" to get to the quarter-finals.
It remains to be seen if they are attributes Balotelli employs for what is left of Italy's tournament.
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