Twenty three days after co-hosts Poland kicked off the action with a 1-1 draw against Greece, Euro 2012 is rapidly reaching its Grand Finale. There are just hours to go before Spain face off against Italy in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium this evening in a repeat of their opening Group C fixture, which took place exactly three weeks ago. On that occasion the two teams were inseparable and the game ended in a 1-1 draw, tonight however, stalemate is not an option, we must have a winner, the question is, who?
The smart money, most would say, is on Spain and has been, with the exception of Germany, from the outset of the tournament. Should the Spanish go on to win this evening, they will make history. Spain will become the first team ever to win three major international tournaments back to back, a remarkable achievement if it were to come to pass. Along with the team achieving that collective milestone, should La Roja win, Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque will become the first manager in the history of the game to have won the World Cup, European Championships and the Champions’ League in his career. Not bad eh?
Spain and del Bosque will not, however, be able to have it all their own way in Kiev, Italy will have more than a little to say about that. Whereas Spain were pre-tournament favourites, expected to go all the way, at least to the final, Italy were less of a known quantity coming into the tournament. Whilst their presence in this evening’s show-piece final cannot be described as a shock, it is certainly slightly surprising. However, in the past, Italy have arrived at two tournaments emerging from domestic match fixing scandals, 1982 and 2006, they went on to win them both so write them off at your peril.
Italy’s tournament began as mentioned above with a credible 1-1 draw against Spain. To use the word credible, is actually doing Prandelli’s Italy a dis-service. The Italians were good in that opening game, playing with three at the back, they were a lot more fluid and carried a much greater attacking threat than the Spanish had anticipated. In the first-half, certainly, they outplayed the Spanish, with Cassano running the show at times and, despite Fabregas’s equaliser, it was only in the last twenty minutes, when del Bosque introduced Torres and Jesus Navas that the Spaniards began to cause real problems.
The game against Spain was notable for a reason other than the performance and the result. That reason being that Cesare Prandelli named Mario Balotelli in his starting eleven to take on the current World and defending European Champions. With the outcome of tonight’s game being too difficult to predict, one thing we can predict is that his performance this evening could be all important.
It was a big day for Balotelli, a player who polarises opinion all over the footballing world, nowhere more so than in his homeland. Plagued by disciplinary problems throughout his young career, some questioned his suitability and big-match temperament and many, especially in the press, sharpened their knives with anticipatory glee at his predicted upcoming failure.
Balotelli didn’t have the best of games against Spain, he had a couple of chances which he could have done better with certainly and, when he burst clear early in the second half and, with the goal at his mercy, dithered, held onto the ball for too long and was, ultimately, tackled before even getting his shot away, the doubters seemed to have had their day. Soon afterwards Balotelli was replaced by di Natale and the latter duly scored.
Prandelli persisted, picking Balotelli for Italy’s second game against Croatia. Again, however, the striker had a couple of chances which he failed to convert and was, to a certain extent, ineffectual. Dropped or rested against the Republic of Ireland, whichever way you interpret it, Mario was brought on late in the second-half. Never one to take things lying down, Balotelli scored a spectacular overhead kick in the dying minutes, putting Italy 2-0 up and securing for his country a first place finish in Group C. Turning angrily towards the bench, Balotelli attempted to voice his frustration at not having been picked to start but was quickly hushed up by his team-mates, luckily for him perhaps.
The goal was enough to cement Mario’s position on that team-sheet for Italy’s quarter final against England. Much has already been written about this particular game, with most attention rightly focused on England’s inability to keep the ball, Hodgson’s inability to adapt his system to deal with Pirlo and, of course, the majestic performance put in by the midfield maestro himself. Watching that match though, missed chances not-withstanding, it occurred to me and latterly became clear to me that Mario Balotelli was, after Pirlo, Italy’s most dangerous weapon and, in terms of a goal-scoring threat, Italy’s only legitimate one.
Balotelli received lots of abuse for missing a couple of chances against England, notably from his own press, La Gazetta dello Sport depicting him as King Kong after the match, for example. However, most of this criticism was unjustified as he was a recurrent threat during the two hours, stretching the English back-line to breaking point at times. On top of his all-round performance, he had the nerve to go head to head with, club colleague, Joe Hart from the penalty spot and beat him confidently in the shoot-out.
Victory over England clearly filled Prandelli’s Italy with a renewed confidence and when they took to the field against the, heavily fancied, Germans, many peoples’ tip to be tournament winners, that confidence was there for all to see. Mario Balotelli personified this new belief. His first goal was simply a case of good movement and timing to get away from his marker and direct the header beyond Neuer, his second was altogether more exhilarating. Finding himself in almost the position he’d been in against Spain, when he dithered, and against England when an extra touch allowed John Terry to make a last ditch block, Balotelli smashed home a first time finish, on the volley, from the edge of the box, giving Neuer no chance whatsoever. This was the real Super Mario.
The “Super Mario” tag is one that is naturally applied to a successful footballer with that first name. In Italy & Britain, it is used about Balotelli, in Germany it is used to refer to Gomez and, at Euro 2012, we have heard it also applied to Mandzukic of Croatia. All three have had eye-catching tournaments, all three are strikers and all have scored three times for their respective nations in Poland and Ukraine, making them joint top scorers with a couple of others. Only Balotelli remains, however, and, if he can score tonight, help Italy claim what will be their first European Championship win in forty four years and, at the same time, claim the Golden Boot, the “Super Mario” moniker will surely belong only to him.
Racism and the struggle to stop it has been an underlying theme of the 2011/12 season, certainly in the Premier League, and Euro2012 has been no exception. Forgetting the scare stories and sensationalism promoted by the BBCs Panorama programme in the run up to the tournament, which have proved to be just that, there have been fairly common incidents involving racist chanting from fans during matches. The Spanish, Russian and Croatian F.A.s have all been fined by UEFA because sections of their support have participated in racist chanting and with making racist gestures. This is a problem that goes deeper than football and is obviously a societal/cultural issue but it is something that must be kept out of football stadia and educated out of society in a broader context.
I bring up this problem only because it has a direct link to the story I’m writing, it directly concerns Mario Balotelli. Both the Spanish fans and the Croatian fans in question were directing their Neanderthal hatred at Balotelli himself and only Balotelli. Mario is no stranger to racists, in his time at Inter there were incidents of bananas being thrown and, as the first black player to regularly represent Italy, he has had to cope with abuse from all sides, including from the mainstream Italian press as we alluded to earlier. Balotelli riles people up with his abrasive attitude, however, there is more than a hint of racism involved, latent, subconscious or otherwise, with the abuse that he gets from many, both on the “terraces” and from other sources, at home and abroad.
Balotelli spoke of walking off the pitch if he heard racist abuse directed at him. In another interview he said “I will go to prison because I will kill them”. These comments and the issue obviously provoked debate but, for me, no stranger to receiving racist abuse in the past myself, the best way to shut these people up is to show them that you are better than they are and that is exactly what Balotelli is doing.
Sometimes in life, things work out in a strange way and this may just be one of those instances. Just as Jesse Owens smashed the Nazi’s ideas on racial superiority in 1936, by showing that he was the best athlete in the world, so too can Mario Balotelli make a mockery of all those individuals who treat him as less than human by proving that he’s the best striker in Europe. Sad that after seventy six years we still have the same problem, but Balotelli’s actions can serve as an important reminder to those that need one. We are all one nation. There can be only one Super Mario!
Balotelli image by Orania.Italy. Del Bosque image by PanArmenian_Photo.
Jesse Owens statue image by Stephen Weiss.