Cesare Prandelli, I like to imagine, must have picked up his mobile phone anxiously. He heard the familiar chime meaning he had received a message and then spotted the sender's name: Roberto Mancini. He opened the text with nervous anticipation – knowing there was only one subject matter it was likely to contain.
“Mario up to his old tricks. Not picking him ever again and will send him packing in the summer. Good luck building a Euro team around him! Mancio.”
It might not have happened exactly like that – especially given the alleged peace now made between the two – but the upshot is the same. Like a long-suffering father reading his errant son's school report, Prandelli must be shaking his head in despair once again. How do you solve a problem like Mario?
The situation is complicated by the moral stance the Italy boss has taken over his call-ups. An old fox like Giovanni Trapattoni or the pragmatic Marcello Lippi might have found a way to select a man who, when on song, can win any match. But the former Fiorentina Coach has made such a selection difficult to justify.
The slouching, surly Balotelli witnessed in recent outings would not be much use to anyone. The chances of his shinpad-rattling tackles going unpunished in Poland and the Ukraine are negligible. So why take a player who is as likely to end up suspended as score a stunning strike? Like setting off fireworks in your bathroom, it is surely not a risk worth taking.
However, the waters are muddied by the issues with the Azzurri's other striking options. Antonio Cassano has just a few minutes of Serie A action in his legs after his welcome return from a health scare. Villarreal's Giuseppe Rossi has made even less progress down the road to recovery. And the likes of Alessandro Matri and Giampaolo Pazzini are not even guaranteed a start with their club sides. Alberto Gilardino has struggled for goals all season, while Roma's Pablo Osvaldo has also had his problems with injury and an omission under Prandelli's ethical code. With Antonio Di Natale having never been selected by Prandelli, it just about leaves only Sebastian Giovinco as an attacking option to rely on.
All these complications make the Balotelli path both tempting and terrifying in equal measure. If you can get him in the mood he can win matches single-handed and produce brilliance no other Italy forward can come close to. Yet he comes with more health warnings than a packet of cigarettes with a stick of dynamite attached. Select him and it might easily blow up in your face.
The number of Coaches who have washed their hands of him seems to grow by the week. And yet, as long as he produces the odd wonder goal, there will surely always be somebody willing to take a chance on him. The question is, can Prandelli afford to be one of them?
Taking Balotelli to Euro 2012 would be like tightrope walking over a pool of piranhas while juggling live grenades. If it comes off, it is likely to earn awestruck applause from any onlooker. But if it goes wrong, it could be a messy business.
Italian football, of course, is littered with the stories of ‘bad boys’ who mended their ways and became greats. Mancini himself had more than one youthful run-in with authority. And Francesco Totti was another player who caused his fair share of consternation before helping lift a World Cup in 2006. Saving Super Mario, however, looks like the toughest task of all.
It is likely to be one of the yardsticks by which Prandelli's reign with Italy will be judged. If he can enjoy success without the Manchester City striker or successfully rehabilitate him, then he deserves plenty of plaudits. It is a managerial challenge which has already stumped Jose Mourinho and Mancini. Unlike his club counterparts, however, Prandelli can't pass the problem on to anyone. Instead, it will take all his patience, diplomacy and understanding to come up with the solution which has so far slipped through everybody else's grasp.
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