KIEV, Ukraine -- The sweetest moment of Euro 2012 didn't fit the script. In the celebration after Italy's 2-1 semifinal win over favored Germany on Thursday, Azzurri striker Mario Balotelli made a pilgrimage to the stands of the National Stadium in Warsaw and embraced a small, aging Italian woman in the front row. So fearsome on the field, so ready to project anger and strength, the 21-year-old
It was the kind of warmth you see between a mother and son. Silvia Balotelli, Mario's adoptive mother, had come to Warsaw to support him, and he had done something transcendent, scoring both Italian goals in a breathtaking display of power, speed and skill. But for the polarizing wunderkind of Italian soccer, the one who's on the verge of holding the English Premier League and European titles, the importance of those goals paled in comparison to the emotion he felt afterward.
"The best moment of the night was when I saw my mother after the game," Balotelli would say. "Those goals were for her."
To say that Balotelli is larger than life would be accurate these days, even in a literal sense, thanks to the gigantic piece of crop art showing the back of his Mohawked head in a field near Verona. Balotelli has become a symbol in the world of European soccer, one that has produced its share of ugly moments from others during Euro 2012.
It may be hard to fathom for U.S. sports fans, but racism is still common in stadiums here, and Balotelli has been the lightning rod for much of it. The Croatian federation was fined $101,000 in part for racist chants by its fans that included a banana thrown at Balotelli. On Friday, the Spanish federation was fined $25,000 for its own racist fan chants at the towering Italian. A Ukrainian TV commentator suggested that racist taunts might be useful in throwing Balotelli off his game, as though it were just one more tactic on the field. And then Italy's sports bible
Born to Ghanaian immigrants in Sicily and adopted by a white Italian family, Balotelli has chosen (perhaps not surprisingly) to flash scowls, angry poses and provocative T-shirts (WHY ALWAYS ME?) whenever he scores, whether it's for England's Manchester City or the Italian national team. In England, he has earned a reputation as a prodigiously talented but reckless player who's always in danger of earning a red card, as he did in a late-season Premier League game at Arsenal, drawing a three-game suspension. More than a few observers thought it was foolhardy for Italian coach Cesare Prandelli to choose Balotelli for his Euro 2012 team.
Instead, Balotelli has flipped the script. There has been plenty of poor behavior by players in this tournament -- French midfielder Samir Nasri's profane tirades at journalists, tales of ego-driven meltdowns inside the Dutch camp -- but Balotelli hasn't produced any of it. Refusing to complain publicly when he lost his place in the starting lineup, Balotelli did his job and scored three terrific goals to tie for the tournament lead. (Not coincidentally, he's starting again.) Rather than clash with his teammates, as is so common in these high-pressure tournaments, he has developed a respectful working relationship with frontline partner Antonio Cassano and Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo. Instead of spewing profanities at the media a la Nasri, Balotelli requested to appear at a podium press conference and came off as mature and even funny, saying he's both a man and Peter Pan.
Balotelli's Italian teammates appear to have genuine affection for him, and in perhaps the biggest stunner of Thursday's win, they managed to draw a smile out of him after his goals.
The closest comparison in U.S. sports that you could probably make to Balotelli would be Dennis Rodman and Terrell Owens in the prime of their careers. Like them, Balotelli has the ability to take over games with his surpassing talent and cleverness. Like them, Balotelli has the tendency to take things too far at times, provoking opponents and becoming his own worst enemy. And like them, Balotelli has acquired a kind of folk-hero status, spawning outlandish tales that resonate because, well, it's Super Mario, and even the ones that aren't totally true carry a kernel of truth.
Did you hear the one about how Balotelli set his Manchester house on fire by lighting a bunch of fireworks indoors? Or the one when he tried a full pirouette on a breakaway against the L.A. Galaxy in a friendly -- and missed? Or the one when he had a traffic accident, got stopped by the cops and responded to their question of why he was carrying 5,000 pounds with: "Because I am rich"? Or the one when he drove around Manchester wearing a Father Christmas outfit and giving out cash to the poor? (The first two are definitely true; the second two perhaps not so much.)
Balotelli has won plenty of fans (and a fair number of critics) during his club career at Inter and Manchester City. But a funny thing happens when a player puts on his country's jersey and scores big goals at a major tournament. You become not just a player but a national hero. It's as though Balotelli, already larger than life, has somehow increased his stature here.
He brought it to a new level in Thursday's game, and then he added a new layer after that. In a tournament that needed a message of racial healing, the photograph of an exultant black player hugging his beaming white mother is a powerful image that needs no explanation.
The sweetest moment of Euro 2012 came from, of all people, Mario Balotelli. Imagine that.