Magician or idiot? Which Mario Balotelli will turn up tonight?
Italy’s hopes of Euro 2012 victory rest on whether Super Mario or Stupid Mario appears at the final in Kiev
AS ITALY prepare to meet Spain in Kiev for tonight’s final of the 2012 European Championship, the question over-shadowng all pre-match analysis is this: Which Mario Balotelli will turn up?
Will it be 'Super Mario', the untouchable striker who shredded the German defence in the semi-finals and powered home the two goals that secured Italy’s progression? Or Mario the twerp, as The Sunday Times puts it - the irresponsible 21-year-old whose infamous antics off the field are matched only by his petulance on it?
Balotelli has shrugged off the accusation of having a Jekyll and Hyde character. Before playing against England, he was asked about James Milner’s suggestion that there was a good Balotelli and a bad Balotelli.
"Lucky him," the Italian replied. "He knows two Mario Balotellis."
Despite such quips, there’s little doubt that pundits, fans and even past managers believe that Balotelli’s susceptibility for self-destruction can undermine his talent.
"I don’t speak with him every day otherwise I would need a psychologist," said Roberto Mancini, Balotelli’s boss at Manchester City, at the end of last season. His comments came as the striker’s red cards and on-field arguments with teammates saw the Sky Blues almost lose the Premiership.
"I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head," Mancini continued. "If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault, because he has everything."
It is that fact – that a man only 21 "has everything", not only in talent but in wealth – which has led to accusations that Balotelli has been spoilt by riches.
Born to poor Ghanaian immigrant parents in Northern Italy, Balotelli was ordered by social services to live with foster parents. His escape was football, signing for AC Lumezzane aged 11. The immense income that eventually followed has been matched by a slew of stories, varying from the bizarre to the ridiculous.
There is the time Balotelli was sent out by his mother to buy an ironing board from John Lewis and returned with a quad bike, a trampoline and a Scalextric – at least two of which had the potential to cause serious injury. Or the night fire trucks had to douse flames from his house on the eve of the Manchester derby because the Italian had set off fireworks from the bathroom.
Some of the stories have been disproved. During an interview with Noel Gallagher earlier this year Balotelli denied driving around Manchester dressed as Santa giving out presents, or dropping £1,000 on an open bar for locals at a pub. But the myth of his impulsive cheekiness remains.
During this tournament, Super Mario has shone like never before. His semi-final brace has been seen as the 21-year-old’s coming of age by the media - Balotelli finally living up to his hype. Can he do it again in the final?
Balotelli believes so. "Tonight was the most beautiful night of my life," he said after defeating Germany, "but I hope that this Sunday is even better."
If he can produce another "beautiful night" at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, then Italy could well beat the odds and conquer Europe. If not, then we can at least look forward to meeting a third Balotelli - 'Mario the father' - if the Sunday Mirror is to be believed.
The paper claims that sources close to Balotelli’s former girlfriend Raffaella Fico, who dated the footballer for nearly a year, says she is convinced she is pregnant and that Mario is the father. Balotelli’s Italian lawyer declined to comment.