When Mario Balotelli compared himself with the world’s greatest players a lot of people pointed a finger of ridicule. A good footballer, they opined, but not entitled to consider himself among the game’s elite. Yet, on Thursday night, he achieved what Cristiano Ronaldo had singularly failed to do 24 hours earlier and blasted his country into the Final of Euro 2012.
It was a tour de force by the Manchester City striker and one in the eye for the myopic little band of Azzurri followers who once unveiled a banner proudly pronouncing: ‘No to a multi-ethnic Italy!’ In town and city squares around the country, a nation leaped for joy as Germany were knocked out of a major competition for the umpteenth time. Nobody gave two hoots about the goalscorer’s family history.
Having spluttered along at times in the tournament so far, Super Mario exploded into life in the biggest game of his short international career. He was full of the kind of menace, intent and application which had Cesare Prandelli grinning from ear to ear. As he has been telling us all for months, Balotelli is a man who can truly make a difference.
It would be unfair to this team, however, to single out its scorer against Germany as the only key to its success. Slowly but surely they have built up a head of steam to give themselves a shot at the European title. But the signals of a new attitude and approach have been there from the outset, at least to those willing to see them.
Yes, the defence has been resolute – in keeping with previous sides – but this is not a team about caution and containment. Instead, it wants to go out and impose its style on an opponent and take the initiative. It has not always worked, but when it has, as in the semi-final, it has looked mighty impressive. In the process, the rest of the world appears to have finally woken up to what Italian football fans already knew about the magic of Andrea Pirlo.
The only fly in the ointment had been the failure of a striker to really hit form. In many of their matches – most notably against England – the Azzurri produced plenty of nice play but not enough clinical finishing. That is what Super Mario provided in style in the clash with Germany.
One more obstacle remains for Italy and their stupendous striker, but what a barrier it is. With their trademark rapid-fire possession style, Spain have starved opponents of the ball once again this tournament and conceded just one goal – to Prandelli’s side in their opening game. The rematch presents a formidable challenge.
This Italian side has already provided proof that the attractive play their Coach produced when in charge of Fiorentina can translate to La Nazionale. But now it has the chance to let him do something he never achieved with the Viola – win a trophy. Nobody would grudge him that success and a triumph for the belief that nice guys do not have to finish second.
However, he will need his tournament joint-top scorer to build on the rich form he showed against Germany. A similar display against Spain would give Mario Balotelli, at the age of just 21, every right to claim he is one of the best in the business. And those who doubted him before might well find themselves simply nodding their heads in agreement.