In the 36th minute of Thursday night’s Euro 2012 semifinal, Mario Balotelli broke free of the German defense. Speeding in on the German goal, the Italian striker summoned a decapitating strike so ferocious, it transformed goalkeeper Manuel Neuer into one of 220 million viewers watching around the world.
Italian soccer has a rich canon of passionate goal celebrations. The raw outpouring of Marco Tardelli’s 1982 wild-eyed roar enshrined as “l’urlo Tardelli,” or Tardelli’s Scream. Fabio Grosso provided a sequel (a kind of Scream II) after scoring an extra-time reflex strike in the 2006 semifinal and launching into a full-throated, head-shaking sprint of delirious release.
Like its scorer, Balotelli’s celebration was different. In four steps, the Italian striker arced around to face his teammates, ripped off his national team jersey and, after tossing it to the turf, struck a pose, muscles flexed, displaying only stony-faced defiance.
The official rule mandating a player receive a yellow card for removing his jersey is as widely known in soccer as that of intentional handball. Yet as the referee approached, Mario stared him down with contempt until being mobbed by giddy teammates.
Balotelli’s foster mother, Silvia, later revealed the explanation her son gave her family for risking the yellow card. According to Silvia, Balotelli said, “I was sick of being criticized for not celebrating, so I did something." But there is more to it than that. With Super Mario, there always is.
Decoding Balotelli is never easy. Talented yet immature in equal measure, over the course of a seven-year career, the 21-year-old Italian has pinballed between endearing rogue and puerile fool, from cheeky to seething. A Balotelli highlight reel requires a split screen. One would be a running loop of sizzling goals that the fast-paced striker has blasted, headed and even shouldered over the line to help Inter Milan and Manchester City lift four championships. The other would chronicle the more sordid side of his story: the darts thrown at trainees; the bathroom burned down with fireworks; fights with teammates.
To understand Balotelli’s celebration against Germany necessitates re-examining the trajectory of a Euro 2012 campaign that in many ways has been a microcosm of the highs and lows of his entire career. Italy’s five games have been like time-lapse photography, in which Balotelli has morphed from object of pity, frustration and ridicule, only to emerge as a symbol of glory.
In the run-up to kickoff, as Euro 2012 was tarnished by the prospect of widespread racism, Balotelli was propelled into the headlines after he reportedly told journalists, “If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to jail because I will kill them.”
Italian manager Cesare Prandelli immediately backed his player, promising if Balotelli was to become “a target of racial boos, we will all step out on the pitch from the bench.”
The Italian manager was well aware that his temperamental striker’s career had been pockmarked by a series of ugly racist incidents. Although Balotelli was raised in the Brescia home of his white adoptive parents, his biological parents were Ghanaian, part of Italy’s illegal immigrant population estimated to be 1 million strong. The politically charged debate surrounding issues of citizenship, rights and national identity that have engulfed the country seeped into soccer.
When Balotelli played for Inter Milan, opposing fans would chant from the terraces, "There is no such thing as a black Italian." This despite the fact he had represented the country at the under-21 level.
Prandelli demonstrated slightly less understanding after Balotelli’s unimpressive performance in the opening game against Spain at Euro 2012. In the 53rd minute of a then-goalless game, the striker charged toward goalkeeper Iker Casillas, one-on-one (a scenario similar to the one that led to his second, thunderous goal against Germany).
But the shot never came. Balotelli incomprehensibly slowed down to give pursuing Spanish defenders a chance to recover and send him tumbling to the turf. Three minutes later, he was substituted and forced to watch replacement Antonio Di Natale score with his first touch.
[Balotelli] has to accept criticism ... The day he understands that no one wants to hurt him, but rather that everyone is helping him, then we will have, in Italy, a champion. Italian manager Cesare Prandelli
After the game, Balotelli informed the media he had been on the receiving end of monkey chants emerging from a section of Spanish fans. An irritated Prandelli dismissed the notion, calling it “absolutely untrue,” but UEFA belatedly validated the striker by fining the Spanish Football Federation for their fans “improper conduct.”
Prandelli’s patience with Balotelli snapped after Italy’s 1-1 draw with Croatia (which also was fined by UEFA when its fans threw a banana at the Italian striker), which left the Italians vulnerable to elimination irrespective of the result of their final group game.
Balotelli became Prandelli’s scapegoat as he publicly slated the substituted striker’s tactical indiscipline. “I lost my voice screaming at him for 15 minutes and I didn’t succeed in correcting his positional play,” the incandescent coach revealed. “I will never abandon him but no one must say ‘I’ in our squad.”
Then Prandelli added: “You are asking me how long Italy must wait for Balotelli to help us. Three days. We are expecting a big reaction from him.”
Three days later, Balotelli found himself on the substitute’s bench and was forced to watch as his team labored against the hapless Irish. Ambling onto the field in the 74th minute, he gave his coach the big reaction he was looking for, volleying home a corner with his back to goal, a technically superlative feat the striker made look blasé.
But Balotelli did not celebrate, choosing to direct a stream of invective toward his critics in the Italian media. Teammate Leonardo Bonucci stanched the flow by clamping a paternal hand over the goal scorer’s mouth. Despite the spectacular nature of Balotelli’s strike, Prandelli continued with the tough-love policy, declaring “[Balotelli] has to accept criticism, being on the bench and for the team to demand more from him. The day he understands that no one wants to hurt him, but rather that everyone is helping him, then we will have, in Italy, a champion.”
Italian sports paper Gazzetta dello Sport celebrated the prospect of Italy’s quarterfinal against England by publishing a startlingly ill-conceived cartoon of Balotelli as King Kong clinging to the side of Big Ben. The newspaper later issued an apology, admitting, “We can honestly say it was not among the best products of our talented cartoonist.”
Balotelli proceeded to experience a frustrating night, constantly enjoying space behind the leaden-footed English backline, firing 11 shots without being able to score. On another night, he would have had a first-half hat trick, yet with his profligate shooting a key factor, the game ended goalless.
Upon dispatching Italy’s opening penalty in the ensuing the shootout, the striker roared with such relief, the Italian press pack was moved to ask Prandelli if the celebration had angered him, as Balotelli had “played poorly yet acted as if he had scored the winning goal.” The Italian coach dodged the question.
And then came the night of triumph and glory against heavily favored Germany, a victory Italian newspaper Tuttosport celebrated with the headline “Li abbiami fatti neri! ('We beat them black and blue') above a photograph of a shirtless Balotelli flexing, jersey off, as if wanting to reinforce the symbolic power of his goal and send a message to those cheering it who had once racially abused him: The jersey was off so there could be no mistaking his skin color.
Balotelli wisely emphasized the positive in his postgame comments after he had walked toward the crowd to hug the Jewish mother who adopted him, Silvia Balotelli.
“What image I will take this game?” Mario Balotelli said. “Certainly after the game when I went to my mom and I said, ‘These goals are for you.’ I waited for this moment for so long, especially since Mom came up to here and I wanted to make her happy. Tonight was the most beautiful of my life, but I hope that this Sunday is even better.”
Can Sunday night be better? Balotelli may charm and grate in equal measure, but when he is on his game, and the planets are aligned, few defenders can stop him. As Spain’s Cesc Fabregas admitted yesterday, “[Balotelli] is a great player and a massive threat. We will do our best to deactivate him.”
Global soccer tournaments have the power to elevate athletes, lifting them from the sporting ether to enshrine them in the pantheon of national heroes – see Pele in Brazil, Franz Beckenbauer in Germany, Diego Maradona in Argentina or Zinedine Zidane in France. If Balotelli scores on Sunday, expect even those who once decried his Italian identity to welcome him home a hero, and for a proud black man with a mohawk to enter the canon of national legends, nestling alongside the likes of Enrico Fermi and Guglielmo Marconi.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.