It's the making of Mario! City's problem boy helping to usher in a brave, new era for Italy
23:11 GMT, 30 June 2012
As he stood tall, shirt off, torso rippling and the colour of his skin proudly exposed, Mario Balotelli seemed keen to make a point in Warsaw's National Stadium on Thursday.
Was it a riposte to the Gazzetta dello Sport cartoonist who had depicted him as King Kong prior to the England match Was it a final, definitive answer to Italian fans who had racially insulted him and displayed banners saying 'No to a multi-ethnic national team' two years ago in a friendly match against Romania
Sitting comfortably: Mario Balotelli takes a break during training
Middle man: Balotelli is always centre of attention
Balotelli may have been unwilling to explain his behaviour following the glorious second goal that ultimately finished Germany's Euro 2012 challenge but what is clear is that a 21-year-old footballer, Ghanaian by ethnicity but Italian by birth and adopted by white Italian parents, is ushering in a new era for the Azzurri at the European Championship.
Seasoned Italian correspondents cannot remember a black Italian ever having had such an impact on the nation's popular culture. For while Andrea Pirlo is the outfield leader of this entertaining team and goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon the vocal driving force, its vitality and future is represented by Balotelli.
Cesare Prandelli, the man who has guided what many considered a mediocre team to the brink of a glorious victory in today's final against Spain in Kiev, is now reaping the rewards of investing so much faith in a player who might have been considered too volatile to integrate into a squad playing tournament football.
The coach praises the job Roberto Mancini has done with Balotelli at Manchester City, but his compatriot had been reduced to declaring the striker 'finished' after his red card against Arsenal as recently as April.
Mario Balotelli of Italy looks on during a training session
Thirsty work: Balotelli and Daniele De Rossi
However, Prandelli, who dropped Balotelli from his squad in March because of his indiscipline at City, took the risk and now receives the rewards. On Friday he grinned as Italian journalists applauded him into a press conference and now his job is to puncture excessive expectations.
He cautions against defining Balotelli as the symbol of a multi-racial Italy. 'I don't think we can solve racial problems just through one game, just because Mario Balotelli scored,' he said. 'He's not so much the symbol of the team, the shirt is the symbol of the team. And he is Italian. Full stop.'
But at times Balotelli still seems something of an outsider. After the win against Germany he sought out his adopted mother, Silvia, who wept as she embraced him. It was the most moving image of the tournament but while that was happening most of his team-mates had walked over to the Italian fans and were dancing an excited jig together in the middle of the pitch – without Balotelli.
It may be more realistic, however, to measure what Balotelli and Prandelli represent in football terms. Last Sunday, having beaten England at Kiev's Olympic Stadium, Prandelli spelt out his footballing philosophy. And it felt like a challenge to Roy Hodgson's England.
'A lot of Italian coaches want to start playing football now, not just playing for the result,' said Prandelli. 'We have this mentality – we want to play. This is the way football's going in the future and I think Italian sides will want to play as we are.'
And of England 'We tried to bring them out of their defence, but they didn't want to come out,' he said. It is the ultimate irony. Just as the English finally learn how to defend, thanks to former AC Milan and Inter coaches, the rest of the world embraces attacking football.
The makeover Prandelli has given the Italian game is similar to that which Jrgen Klinsmann achieved for Germany at the 2006 World Cup, foundations on which Joachim Low's team have built impressively, notwithstanding their defeat on Thursday night.
The task is greater though for Prandelli, the former Fiorentina and Parma coach. The caricature of Italian football would have it that cynicism abides on the pitch – this is the nation that invented catenaccio and revered Claudio Gentile – and off it.
Strike a pose: Italy's Mario Balotelli celebrates after scoring his second goal against Germany
Clinical: Balotelli heads home against Germany
The 2006 Calciopoli fixing scandals has been followed by the latest betting scandal, Scommessopoli, which has embroiled current Juventus coach Antonio Conte and defender Domenico Criscito, who was withdrawn from the current squad because of the investigation.
Leaving aside that Italy's greatest successes in 1982 and 2006 came in the wake of match-fixing scandals, Prandelli presents a different face of Italian football. He even dropped Daniele De Rossi in March for elbowing a player. 'I wanted to display good football, something really pleased with. we have taken our methods,' he said.
Prandelli already has a groundswell of sympathy in Italy death of his wife, Manuela, his childhood sweetheart, from cancer five years ago. Here he has been emgaging and quirky. After victories, he and his coaching staff have set off in the small hours of the morning to walk to a Krakow monastry – the first time they completed the entire 15 miles on foot – as a pilgrimage of thanks.
The great AC Milan coach Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello's mentor, has said that Prandelli is revolutionising their game and 20 million Italian viewers tuned in to watch the Germany match, a statistic that has made the coach proud. 'Before this tournament everyone was more concerned with a Juventus-Milan game than the national team,' said Prandelli. 'Now we're getting results and everyone is supporting the team.'
It helps if you have the metronomic passing of Pirlo, the energy of De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio and explosiveness of Antonio Cassano.
The youthful spirit and inspiration, though, is all from Balotelli. And while Serie A is routinely derided by little Englanders, Italy does have a habit of producing players who can actually pass the ball to each other.
As for Prandelli, he is all smiles for now. A month ago, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was so disillusioned with the latest scandal engulfing the game, he said it might be better if Italian football was suspended for three years. Prandelli, it seems, saw a politician eyeing a bandwagon.
'I simply said I don't agree with this view of football,' he said. 'We like to play fair. And if you think as Prime Minister or as a Government that the Italy team does not represent its country in a proper way then perhaps it's better for us to stay at home.'
Prime Minister Monti is presumably glad they did not. On Friday he confirmed that he would be flying to Kiev to attend the final. It seems Italian football is worth watching after all.