It is the latest of many enigmas to have surrounded Mario Balotelli in his short career. Why did his Italy teammate Leonardo Bonucci clamp a hand over the 21-year-old striker’s mouth after his goal against Ireland, five days ago?
Bonucci has been unwilling to shed any light on this matter, though The Independent can reveal that it was the Italian media’s rollercoaster relationship with Balotelli, who is expected to start the match against England this evening, which lay behind Bonucci’s decision to take preventative action. Ahead of the forward's most significant appearance for his nation, Balotelli’s sister, Cristina, has said that a media which has accused the player of not knowing where the opposition goal is located in these European Championships, was about to get a message from Balotelli when Bonucci intervened. “When he reacted after his goal against Ireland, it was against the media that he feels makes problems for him,” Ms Balotelli said. “Previously they had been writing that he could not see the goal because he failed in his first match against Italy.”
Though the initial assumption was that Balotelli was about to unleash a reaction to coach Cesare Prandelli, for not starting him against the Irish, there is evidence of the relationship between the two of them genuinely mellowing. Prandelli has dropped Balotelli in the past but seems to be employing the same strategy as Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini – a mixture of tough and nurturing stances - to get through to an extremely unpredictable player. “There is the same calm character in both his coaches and both are men who talk to the players as well as be firm when they need to be,” said Ms Balotelli said of Prandelli and Mancini. “The two are very similar. They will both drop him if they think they need to. Sometimes Mario wants to do things his own way but he has to learn.”
Balotelli called his sister from Kiev last night, ahead of this evening’s quarter final. “I felt from his voice he was very relaxed but determined to do well,” she said. “I’m sure he feels the pressure of this game but it is like that for everyone.” Ms Balotelli’s observation in an interview yesterday that it is “easy to freak out in these situations” was construed earlier today as her suggesting publicly that he will “maybe freak out” against Roy Hodgson’s team. That has astonished her. “I was trying to say the opposite; that in these situations, where it is easy to freak out, Mario maintains his cool attitude,” she concluded. “He keeps very calm before the game and when all the eyes are on him he holds pressure, which surprises me. That is what I was saying.” Balotelli has not discussed with his sister the racist abuse which cameraman heard being directed at him during Italy’s game with Croatia.