Balotelli and a Bold New Italy

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t loved watching Italy in this tournament? They’ve combined a tournament’s worth of interesting backdrops and subtexts into one team, while also playing some of the most thrilling and enterprising football ever seen from the Azzuri.

The classic Italian footballing virtue of pragmatism hasn’t been abandoned by any means, the team is built on the core of Conte’s Juventus side, with a no-nonsense shaven-headed back four that could have just stepped out of an audition for a new series of Prison Break. Their team spirit is clearly impressive and Prandelli has even managed to get potential mavericks like Cassano and Balotelli focussed and working hard for the greater good. So far, so Italy.

What is new is their aggressive pressing and the speed of thought and quick interplay they exhibit going forward. In my memory, Italian teams have tended towards the patient and conservative, winning the ball back through great organisation but also passivity, sitting back and making themselves impossible to play through, and relying on a few very talented individuals to make the breakthroughs in attack.

This Italy, however, is no longer content to sit and wait. They hunt for the ball, they hunt in packs, and when they get the ball they pass it quickly and incisively within those packs – the flicks, one-twos, clever movement and sheer exhilaration they exhibited was, in that most hoary of footballing clichés, ‘just like watching Brazil’. Watching a 33 year old Pirlo and his telepathic understanding of position nicking the ball from a perspiring German toe before executing yet another inch perfect outside- footed mid-range pass into the path of a scurrying and determined Italian attacker will live on as the enduring image of this tournament, and him the player of the tournament, in a way that recalls Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama at his absolute best.

The interest doesn’t end there. Once more, an Italian team has honed itself into a lethal weapon against the backdrop of a domestic corruption scandal, with Juventus again implicated. This does not strike me as coincidence. Italy are perennial contenders at any major tournament, but with that comes an incredible pressure of domestic expectation. England’s limp quarter-final exit would see an Italian coach sacked, regardless of the quality of the opposition or the personnel available to him. Anything less than a semi-final is a failure and prompts a national inquest from a passionate but intrusive press.

This time, though, the nation again has bigger footballing issues on its mind. It is impossible to expect the best of players given such apparently unfavourable conditions, yet, paradoxically, those conditions force the team into a ‘bond or bust’ mentality, while simultaneously removing that often crippling pressure of expectation. The team has no choice but to stand together against outsiders, knowing also that, just for once, they will not come home as poster-boys for failure if they don’t impress in the latter stages. Like in the 2006 World Cup, the scandal has enabled a group of very talented players with a strong team ethic to concentrate on the primary aim of winning football matches, an aim they have striven for very impressively so far.

My favourite subplot, though, is also my favourite player in this team: Mario Balotelli. Already the man of the tournament in terms of column inches devoted to faux-moralising, he is on the verge of becoming the one thing these Euros have lacked so far – a game changing striker consistently hitting the back of the net. That he does hit the net should not generate the mock surprise it does from those who love to hate him for being a one-man generator of the kind of tedious non-troversy that dominates far too much football coverage these days. Despite the image of him as a brainless hot-head, forever one temper tantrum away from self and team destruction, Balotelli on the ball is the epitome of cool.

Look at his second goal. One of the very best striker’s finishes I’ve seen anywhere this season. Taken early, instinctively, only one touch to bring it under control before powering it into the net. Maybe questions can be asked of the German keeper – but only watching a replay in slow motion. In real time the ball was in the back of the net before it even seemed in a position to be hit. It’s the kind of finish that can only achieved by a confident striker who, whatever his other strengths and weaknesses, needs only the ball and goal to be in reasonable proximity before his one-track mind takes over and his foot, head or miscellaneous body part do the rest.

It’s great to see, and not just for footballing reasons. The spectre of racism has hung over this tournament as it was always going to. The response from football’s governing bodies has, as ever, been morally reprehensible, hypocritical and plain old pathetic. Even in support of Balotelli the Italian press subjected him to a highly objectionable King-Kong cartoon. By scoring that second goal, and then later doing that most Italian of things – hugging his beloved mama – Balotelli has probably done more good in Italy’s fight against racism than FIFA, UEFA or the Italian government have managed in a generation.

That’s not to downplay the importance of politics or structural changes in combating racism- in fact it’s the lack of those kind of real initiatives which make the footballing authorities such an unbridled disgrace on this issue – more to point out that, just as in England, the impact of quality footballers playing quality football can have a genuine and lasting impact on both the perception of and discourse around race. In that sense, it’s even more fortunate that the player in question is Mario Balotelli because, again despite his image, he is an interesting and articulate young man.

All that said, I must take a moment to acknowledge that he does, quite clearly, also have a crazy side. I need to acknowledge it because that’s what I absolutely love about him. He reminds me hugely of Bulgaria’s greatest and possibly moodiest talent – Hristo Stoitchkov. Balotelli is undoubtedly prone to the odd tantrum and some inappropriate reactions, but like Stoitchkov he’s also capable of channelling that fire into performances of devastating brilliance, hard work and real focus.

The celebration for that second goal really showcased this. Yes, it was arguably a stupid yellow card. On the other hand a look at Balotelli’s eyes at that moment ought to strike a little fear into the hearts of Spanish defenders. This was a young man revelling in the brightness of the spotlight he’s had forced upon him ever since his talent became apparent. This was a young man taking the light shone on him, often unjustly, and turning it into a new light coming from within him. He seemed to be signalling to the world: “I am Balotelli, I am here, I am ready and I am dangerous. I can deal with it – can you?”

Even better was his reaction to the win. Commentators have already moaned about it (and laughably so, having been castigated for his emotional over-reactions he is now being accused of excessive coldness – as is often the case with Balotelli it’s become criticism for criticism’s sake rather than anything based on a real transgression) but where some saw a lack of emotion or engagement with his team mates I got a sense of maturity and focus. It’s not that Balotelli was unconcerned or unhappy – it’s that he was already mentally moving on to Spain. He was seeing his surroundings, feeling like he belonged, and already turning to the far more important next step of actually winning rather than just getting there.

Maybe this is all just hyperbole, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that Balotelli is still just 21. He would not be the first young man to forge a better focus out of the furnace of youthful controversy. In this sense, the unpleasant treatment he’s received may actually help him in the long run. That’s not to justify it, more to point out that those with strength of mind can turn the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune into a real core of strength. Compare this to Wayne Rooney whose tantrums and tears have continually been excused and indulged, and we have on the one hand an incredible talent whose focus seems increasingly to be drifting away, a man who no longer seems to have the mentality to fulfil the genius he exhibited in his teenage years. On the other we have a player baptised in hardship, subject to abuse, racist and otherwise, and all sorts of speculation and attack from friends as much as enemies, but who now looks increasingly ready to channel both his talent and his temper into football’s ultimate difference maker: scoring goals.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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