Mario Balotelli is famous for a lot of things, including his not-so-secret love for getting an early bath through a sent-off in a ridiculous manner. But prior to the Euro semifinal against Germany, his answer to reply the question of why he never celebrated after scoring goals has been the latest entry to great footballing quotes, “When I score, I don’t celebrate because I’m only doing my job. When a postman delivers letter, does he celebrate?”
Having been familiar with all Balotelli’s antics, of course there’s some air of borderline arrogance in that sentence, but after the game in which he scored two great goals, we knew that his remark was not entirely true. A little celebration of shirt-flapping followed his opener – a well-timed header to connect Antonio Cassano’s cross that left Manuel Neuer and Holger Badstuber.
His second, a thunderous strike after he picked up a deep pass from Ricardo Montolivo, showed his composure and excellent finishing ability. A truly world-class goal and Balotelli accompanied it with a world-class celebration. He took off his shirt and flexed his muscles with a facial expression of “I told you so” that would make Eric Cantona proud.
There’s some sense that, by sporting such celebration, not only Balotelli successfully silenced his critics, but also directly responded to racist jibes threw at him. After the game against England, an Italian newspaper published a cartoon which portrayed Balotelli as King Kong at the top of the Big Ben. The newspaper, La Gazetta Dello Sport, later admitted that the cartoon was in distasteful fashion but Balotelli wouldn’t be so sorry to pick up a yellow card for taking this shirt off. Even a postman can celebrate once in a while.
On Sunday, the enigmatic postman will be on the field in Kiev to help his Italian team to deny Spain a historical feat of winning 3 consecutive international tournaments. It could have been a surprise to see Italy – not among the top pre-tournament favorites – in the ultimate encounter of the competition but the Italian tendency to perform every time they have troubles back home precedes the verdict.
Like in 1982 and 2006 World Cups – both saw Gli Azzuri as champions – Italy was going to Euro 2012 with a match-fixing scandals that involved a lot of big names. Even the defender Domenico Criscito had to be withdrawn from the squad after Italian police frisked the national team camp. Yet Italy once again successfully transformed the negative build-up to some sort of energy and motivation that have taken them to beat the odds.
How did they get to the final? Ultra defensive-minded “catenaccio”? Parking the bus in the penalty box? Wasting time by rolling around exaggeratedly like they just stepped into a minefield? The manager Cesare Prandelli must take all the credits by bidding “arrivederci” to the old stereotypes of Italian football and giving the team a new identity.
Prandelli, an astute tactician, shocked Spain by playing three defenders in the first match in group phase and Italy looked like a match to the defending champions, playing them in their passing game. Italy dominated the ball possession against England and registered 35 shots; 20 of them were on target. Casual fans who were washed in traditional prejudice could be forgiven for failing to notice that Italy was the one in blue that night. Against the favorite Germany, Italy combined solid defending and deadly counterattack that unsettle the opposition’s much lauded flowing football. If it takes a sporting scandal to make them playing like this, the Italians must be wishing to have a “calciopoli” every two years.
It would be a major offense to write about Italy and not mentioning Andrea Pirlo, the perennial contender to be player of the tournament. Pirlo has been pulling the strings brilliantly in midfield since day one, orchestrating his team from his signature deep-playmaker position. He’s like Professor Moriarty, masterminding all the tricks behind the curtain without being noticed. Such a great talent he possesses, even at the age of 33. AC Milan’s decision to let him go to Juventus last season will be remembered as one of the most laughable transfer decisions ever.
Pirlo is already remembered in this tournament for one of the cheekiest penalty shot ever taken. He did a “Panenka,” a chip penalty straight to the middle, named after Antonin Panenka, a Czech player who invented that kick in the 70s. Francesco Totti also did the same against Netherlands in Euro 2000, but Italy were a goal down in a penalty shootout to England when Pirlo decided to go for the greatest. The number of sticks he would get had he failed is unimaginable, but Pirlo prevailed and turned the momentum to Italy’s favor. It will not be a surprise if after this tournament people start calling him Santo Andrea.
Like anyone who grew up in the 90s would know, Italy has the reinforcements it needs in the final. The combination of Super Mario and Luigi (Buffon) always get the job done. Plus, the ever-present Andrea Pirlo who seems like he has eaten all the magic mushrooms in the video game.