Italy's Mario Balotelli relishing England matchup
While Mario Balotelli likened himself to Peter Pan off the pitch, Italy's often volatile striker showed surprising focus in pure football terms before Sunday's showdown (2:45 p.m. ET) with a familiar England squad.
The 21-year-old forward met the media on Saturday for the first time at the European championship and revealed how much "fun" it's going to be facing three of his Manchester City teammates in the quarter-finals — England goalkeeper Joe Hart, centre back Joleon Lescott and midfielder James Milner.
"They know me and I know them," Balotelli said. "I just hope we win. Even though they're my teammates, I hope they're going to lose."
Balotelli has been the centre of discussion at Italy's camp ever since the squad arrived in Poland.
In the team's opener against Spain, he wasted a wonderful scoring opportunity by inexplicably slowing down just enough for defender Sergio Ramos to catch up with him and strip him of the ball.
Then, after losing his starting spot in the final Group C match against Ireland, he came off the bench and scored one of the most spectacular goals of the tournament — an acrobatic, midair bicycle kick on the volley.
"There's always going to be criticism. It's normal when you play 60, 70 or 90 minutes that a player is going to make mistakes," Balotelli said. "Criticism helps you improve."
But after scoring against the Irish, defender Leonardo Bonucci rushed over and used his hand to cover Balotelli's mouth, apparently fearful that the striker was unleashing a verbal assault on anyone and everybody.
"We keep saying how young he is, but he's really a (young) man now," midfielder Daniele De Rossi said recently, while his agent Mino Raiola compared him to Peter Pan, the mischievous boy character who can fly and who never ages.
So which label does Balotelli prefer?
"Those are metaphors for Mario the person, not Mario the player, so it's not really suited for the match tomorrow," Balotelli said. "I think Mario is a man. But I am a bit of a Peter Pan, because I'm free. But I definitely feel more of a man than Peter Pan."
In effect, Balotelli's childlike spirit is never far from the surface, such as when he played with the corner flag between his legs in training earlier this week, or with constant practical jokes involving his strike partner, Antonio Cassano.
But Balotelli also appreciates his fans. When scores of schoolchildren came out onto the pitch asking for autographs two days ago, he stayed out satisfying the kids' demands longer than any other player.
Milner discussed the two sides to Balotelli — the one that sometimes appears he has his mind elsewhere, and the other who often plays brilliantly, having helped City to its first Premier League title in 44 years last month.
"He's lucky, he knows two of me," Balotelli said, smiling and looking relaxed with his arms resting on the table in front of him.
But which Balotelli will show up against England?
"I'm going to give my all, then it's up to you to enjoy it or be angered by it," Balotelli said. "Mario the person doesn't need to show anything to anyone. Those that know me know what I'm about."
Still, Balotelli remains a mystery to many fans. He usually doesn't celebrate after scoring, and wasn't about to contemplate how he might react if he finds the target against England.
"First, let me score, then we'll see," he said. "The national-team jersey has been something special to me since I was a kid, but that hasn't affected me here. I haven't had any problems — neither off the pitch nor when I scored."