He might be crazy, but Mario Balotelli has a heart.
His tears after Spain drubbed Italy 4-0 in the most lopsided European Championship final ever suggested as much. Balotelli was far from alone in letting his emotions show, as he was joined by midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo.
However, the most telling expression came from keeper Gianluigi Buffon, who rarely picks the ball out of his net four times in a game. His look of ‘They were too good’ was reminiscent of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s in the 2011 Champions League final, when the Red Devils fell to Barcelona – which provided a fair few of the performers in Kiev on Sunday.
Still, once the dust settles, Italy should be more than content with its tournament. Why?
1. It overachieved.
Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and probably even France were considered contenders ahead of Italy at Euro 2012: The Azzurri were thumped 3-0 by Russia before the tournament in a friendly and humbled by the U.S. at home in the winter in another.
Another betting and match-fixing scandal also cast a dark cloud over the team on the eve of the event, even leading to defender Domenico Criscito being dropped from the roster. But the affair had a galvanizing effect, similar to 2006 at the World Cup in Germany.
Manager Cesare Prandelli forged a close-knit side that wasn’t negative on the pitch. Under Prandelli, Italy was determined to score goals rather than simply stifle the opposition to death.
The winning mentality didn’t disappear.
2. The Azzurri look good up front.
It’s hard to believe that Balotelli was on the bubble only a month and a half ago. His petulance and ill discipline at Manchester City were held against him as Prandelli weighed his squad options heading into Euro 2012. However, Balotelli made the cut – then repaid his manager.
Sure, teammates had to hold Balotelli back after he scored early in the tournament because he was, apparently, about to let Prandelli have it for not starting him against the Irish.
But as Italy upset Germany in the semifinals, Balotelli showed why he’s one of the most talented players on the planet. His brace, including a finish into the top corner, was nothing short of outstanding. As the 21-year-old gets older, he’s bound to mature. (Isn’t he?)
Antonio Cassano’s return to fitness was a further positive, and don’t forget that Giuseppe Rossi is still expected to come back after he recovers from injury.
3. Italy can still defend.
For all the progression in Italy’s style, the Italians still know how to limit opposition chances and keep clean sheets. It’s in the lineage, it seems.
After playing to 1-1 draws with Spain and Croatia in the group stage, Italy blanked Ireland, blanked England (in games where the Irish and Three Lions rarely threatened) and only conceded an injury-time penalty to the Germans. Spain, now considered by many to be the best team ever, was a different proposition in the final.
But Italy should be looking forward to the World Cup in 2014, even if Pirlo may not be around.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.