Mario Balotelli Disarms His Haters, Repays Prandelli's Faith

WARSAW, POLAND - JUNE 28: Mario Balotelli (R) of Italy celebrates with team-mate Claudio Marchisio after scoring his team's second goal as Philipp Lahm of Germany shows his dejection during the UEFA EURO 2012 semi final match between Germany and Italy at the National Stadium on June 28, 2012 in Warsaw, Poland. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Why always him? Because he's interesting, both for his antics and his play. On Thursday, Mario Balotelli appeared to acknowledge his critics, while simultaneously dismissing them with a spectacular two-goal performance.

'I am not crazy, absolutely not, although sometimes I do strange things.'

This quote was uttered by Mario Balotelli two weeks after his house was set on fire by an indoor fireworks display. A day later, he scored the opening goal in Manchester City's 6-1 slaughter of Manchester United, after which he unveiled his famous 'Why Always Me?' t-shirt. This is Balotelli's public persona and footballing career in a nutshell. He does something crazy off the pitch, then shows off his footballing talents, then does something crazy on the pitch. Rinse, repeat.

He's perceived by many as petulant and arrogant -- perceptions that are frequently perpetuated by the English media -- but he occasionally comes off as very self-aware. He also correctly categorizes himself as a person who does strange things. This is what Balotelli is known for across the world, but he is also very, very good at football.

It's very easy to forget that Balotelli, who has always looked like a fully-grown adult and who has been in the international spotlight for four years, is only 21-years-old. At that age, he already has 39 league goals in 99 league appearances in Serie A and the Premier League. He makes headlines for his antics and his quotes that don't fit in line with what the public expects from professional footballers, and he does this so often that almost no one discusses him in terms of his youth and talent.

Make the effort to forget the shenanigans for a second and just think about Balotelli's game, independent of his antics and personality. You might find yourself remembering that he is one of the best young footballers in the world. He's been a major contributor to the winners of three major league titles in two countries, a UEFA Champions League winner and now a finalist at the European Championships. The list of players who have accomplished what he has before their 22nd birthday is minuscule. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were just beginning to make the transition from promising youngsters to world class players at the age Balotelli is now, and both of them did not truly turn a corner until after they hit 22 years old.

Between his youth and his personality, Marcello Lippi deemed Balotelli unfit to occupy a place on his World Cup squad two years ago. He took Giampaolo Pazzini, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Alberto Gilardino and Fabio Quagliarella to that tournament, players whose careers have stalled since for various reasons. With Giuseppe Rossi injured and those four players, plus Alessandro Matri out of form, it became obvious as the spring rolled on that Balotelli would have to be a key contributor for the azzurri at the Euros.

And even if those players were all in form and available, Balotelli needs to be in Cesare Prandelli's team, because he brings something that the other attacking players in the Italy squad simply don't possess. Italy is full of players with great work rate and skill, but Balotelli's physical talent is completely unmatched. On a team known for its comfort in possession and slow, methodical build-up play, he provides both a change of pace and a physical presence that no one else brings to the table.

In Italy's first two games, that didn't translate to goals. In fact, Balotelli was downright poor, and his removal against Spain led directly to the goal that got Italy into the knockout stage. In his 57 minutes on the pitch against Spain, he was dispossessed four times, turned the ball over twice and failed to hit a shot on target. He was removed for Antonio Di Natale, who scored three minutes later. Balotelli was much more lively against Croatia, but he was wasteful once again with four off-target shots, and was removed for Di Natale again.

This led to Di Natale starting a must-win game against Ireland. Considering Balotelli's form and Di Natale's experience, it was an understandable switch by Prandelli. Di Natale didn't fare any better in that match than Balotelli did in the previous two, leading to the inverse of the regular switch in the 75th minute. In stoppage time, 15 minutes after he entered the match, Balotelli reminded everyone why he's first choice with this goal.

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While being fouled, with his back to goal and no clear shooting lane, Balotelli hit what was unquestionably the best goal of the tournament up until that point with a spectacular volley. No other available Italian forward would have held off his defender that well, and none would have had the audacity to try that volley. With one strike of the ball, Balotelli reminded everyone why, despite his off-the-pitch transgressions and on-the-pitch inconsistency, he deserves to play in every match for his club and country.

He regained his place in the team against England, a match in which there seemed to be a hex on the goal. Balotelli didn't duplicate the heroics he produced against Ireland, but he was his team's most lively attacking force. Italy produced more than 30 shots in that match, and only one player hit more than one shot on target. That player was Balotelli, who managed to do so five times. He was also Italy's first penalty taker, and he beat Joe Hart easily with a perfectly placed shot into the low corner as part of the azzurri's shootout win.

A run to the semifinals of Euro 2012 looked like a great accomplishment for Italy, which was only a slight favorite to get out of its group and to win its quarterfinal match. The team didn't enter the tournament as one of the favorites, or even as one of the sexy dark-horse picks to win it all. Germany, pre-tournament co-favorites alongside Spain, was supposed to be the perfect matchup nightmare for the Italians thanks to a variety of circumstances. The Germans usually play a faster style than any of Italy's four previous opponents, and they use their width better as well. Additionally, because of the way UEFA set up the quarterfinals, they had an extra two days of rest for the likes of 33-year-old Andrea Pirlo and Antonio Cassano, who returned to football in the last week of April following seven months on the sidelines due to cerebral ischemia and heart surgery, respectively.

Cassano didn't look the slightest bit lacking in fitness in the semifinal. He spun Mats Hummels around like a top before providing the assist on Balotelli's first goal, scored with an athletic header. This, on its own, seemed like justification for Balotelli's starting place in Prandelli's team, but the best was yet to come. Balotelli's header was great and required some serious athletic talent, but it's not difficult to imagine Di Natale anticipating Cassano's cross quickly enough to get into a position to score that exact same goal. It wasn't necessarily a spectacular representation of what makes Balotelli special, a category that his second goal absolutely falls into.

The pass played by Riccardo Montolivo to set up Balotelli's brace and Italy's ultimate winner deserves a tribute of its own completely independent of the recipient of the pass, but if any Italian striker other than Balotelli was on the pitch, it's easy to envision Philipp Lahm recovering to clear the ball away or the ensuing shot going to a place where Manuel Neuer could make a save. But Prandelli stuck with Balotelli, and his faith in his young star was repaid with a six-second moment of magic.

The most incredible thing about this goal is that there is not one most incredible thing about this goal. What's incredible is that, in a span of six seconds, Balotelli does five things that no one on his team could have possibly done better.

First, he anticipates Montolivo's ball perfectly and stays mere inches behind Lahm on the initial run. Second, he has the pace to gain a step on Lahm. Third, he makes a perfect first touch with his chest, putting himself in position to run at the goal. Fourth, he makes a decisive second touch that makes it nearly impossible for Lahm to nick the ball off of him. Fifth, he powers a thunderbolt into the corner that Neuer couldn't have saved if he was 10 feet tall. All of this ... in just six seconds. His goal against Ireland and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's side-volley against France might have more easy highlight appeal because of the acrobatics, but this is the true goal of the tournament so far in Euro 2012.

But of course, because he's Mario Balotelli, his performance won't be remembered for his brilliant goals, and what he brings to the azzurri that no other player is capable of bringing. Instead, he'll be remembered for his 'celebration' that wasn't really a celebration at all. It was more like a huge middle finger to all of his critics, one that they probably deserved.

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On the evening before the semifinal, Balotelli talked about celebrations, and why he doesn't celebrate his goals in an eccentric manner that would be consistent with his public image.

"When I score I don't celebrate, because I'm doing my job. When the postman delivers your letter, does he celebrate?"

It's a spectacular quote, but as everyone knows, there aren't websites and newspapers dedicated to examining the personal lives and job performances of postmen on a microscopic level. Footballers' jobs are not comparable to postmen -- because footballers are scrutinized constantly.

Balotelli's public persona and the 'Why Always Me?' shirt imply that he doesn't care about his critics. At this point, most of the outrageous stories about his life outside of football are well-known. He crashed his car shortly after joining Manchester City, and when a police officer asked him why he was carrying £5,000 in cash, he replied 'Because I am rich'. He once threw metal darts out of a window at a youth team player. These incidents, along with his in-home fireworks display and garden ATV racetrack paint a picture of a young man who is living the lifestyle of a rich kid without a care in the world.

The quote at the top of this column -- 'I am not crazy, absolutely not, although sometimes I do strange things.' -- is an assertion that the media and public don't 'get' Balotelli and never will. The quote about simply doing his job is an assertion that he doesn't feel the same pressure as other players because he's just doing a job. His antics present an image of, for lack of a better term, a kid who simply doesn't give a f--k.

But Balotelli isn't immune from pressure, and football isn't just a job to him, and sometimes, even he cares. His celebration after his second goal, complete with a bodybuilder-esque pose and a death stare, looks like the response of a person who does, in fact, hear all of the negative things that are said about him on an almost daily basis. He does care, but instead of vocally hitting out at his haters, he shut them down with his actions, then silently issued a 'What now?' to the world. Those who criticize him for his performances and his antics have lost this round.

That's not to say that Balotelli is completely misrepresented as a villain. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to dislike him. After all, he has gotten himself needlessly sent off for Manchester City on multiple occasions. In the second half of last season, he managed to pick up a three-game suspension for a stomp on Scott Parker while miraculously avoiding both a sending off and retrospective punishment late in the year for his studs-on-knee challenge against Alex Song. He's still an immature player, and his immaturity has nearly caused injury for other players. The stomp on Parker and the 'tackle' against Song are pretty indefensible. There's no denying that Balotelli has a history of being a reckless idiot on the pitch.

If you're going to dislike him, dislike him for that. Don't dislike him for his eccentricity, unless you're a genuinely joyless person who is incapable of having fun. Don't dislike him for his inconsistent play, which is actually incredibly consistent for a 21-year-old. Don't call him overrated, because it's impossible for someone with his scoring record, physical talent and sizable jeering section to be overrated.

Balotelli is going to become a much better footballer than he is now, and presumably, a more mature person as well. His reaction to his second goal indicates that he needed that moment for himself, but he was going to have a moment like that eventually. At just 21, Balotelli's big moment on the international stage could have waited a few years and his career trajectory probably wouldn't be altered too much for it.

His country, however, had a bit more of a need for urgency. Italy needed that goal on Wednesday, and they got it from the only player in their country with the talent to score it.

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