Much is made of the contrast between Mario Balotelli the man and Mario Balotelli the footballer. His story is a familiar one: young, talented and full of promise; if only he could keep his head on straight, he would go far.
His off-field antics have dominated the headlines so often that prior to Euro 2012 there was much speculation -- and even encouragement from the Italian press -- that he should be left off the squad entirely, for fear of his antics distracting from the job at hand.
Coming on the heels of the latest match-fixing scandal to rock Italian football, the thinking went the last thing the Azzurri needed was another distraction. But even after head coach Cesare Prandelli, who has become the calm at the centre of the Italian storm, the question remained: would it be Super Mario or Psycho Mario who would show up for Italy?
Well, if there was any doubt as to whether Balotelli, at 21-years-old and with the world at his feet, would have the composure to compete in a major tournament, it has all but been erased. His first-half brace against the Germans in the semifinal assures him of at least that much. The opener, a header, the result of a fantastic delivery from Antonio Cassano and an elusive run from Mario, set the tone. And the second, a 20-yard run, finished off by a blistering strike from just outside the 18-yard-box, capped it off.
Of course, in typical Psycho Mario fashion he would rip off his shirt in celebration, guaranteeing himself a yellow card booking and the threat of a red card looming over him for the rest of the game. But nothing he would do on this day would play into the characterization of his detractors.
The thing about Balotelli is, he really isn't all that different from his peers. In a world where athletes have a gross abundance of money, fame and women thrown at them, it's the humble member of that pack who stands out. With Mario, at the extreme opposite end, he simply doesn't hide his contempt for the press, his love of his wealth and the reality that he lives on a different planet than most of us.
To give someone all of those things, to wait on him hand and foot, gushing over all of his successes and then expect him to be, of all things, humble is foolish. The won't-someone-please-think-of-the-children crowd will like to tell you otherwise, but the idea of athletes as role models is an antiquated one. Unfiltered social media access, coupled with the citizen paparazzi seeking to snap photos of idols at their worst moments, guarantee that we see players like Balotelli as they are -- warts and all.
But the only thing that matters in sport today is results and Balotelli has shown time and again that he is capable of delivering that. Few gave the Italians much of a chance against the mighty Germans, who were the consensus pre-tournament favourites. And, why not? The DFB-eleven had not trailed for a single minute during the Euro 2012 campaign. Not just the final tournament, they led for every single minute of the qualifying campaign.
It took Super Mario all of 20 minutes to erase that streak and another 15 minutes to all but bury his opponents. As he stood there with his shirt off after his second goal, chiseled, flexing and mean mugging for the camera, Mario Balotelli the man and Mario Balotelli the footballer came into focus.
In a country whose team thrives off of creativity on the pitch and controversy away from it (the last time a match-fixing scandal hit Italy, they won the World Cup shortly after) Mario Balotelli is simply the result of everything that makes up the Italian game.
Nothing more, nothing less.
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