Will he be selected to face England? Will he be on song? Will becoming engaged just three days before the World Cup starts distract the enigma named Mario Balotelli?
Self-centred, immature, mercurial, maverick, super-talented. Pick your description, choose your view of the man expected to again be trusted to spearhead Italy’s tilt at a major tournament after firing the Azzurri to the Euro 2012 final.
Of the choice between Balotelli and Ciro Immobile, who scored a hat-trick in Sunday’s 5-3 win over Fluminense, to lead Italy’s line against England in Manaus on Saturday, Roy Hodgson says: “The headache is [Cesare] Prandelli’s but both will be given maximum respect, they are very good players.”
As Immobile is the far less experienced and gifted player, it would be a big surprise if Prandelli opted for him. That there is even a debate offers the latest reminder of the question mark that continually hovers over the former Lumezzane, Internazionale and Manchester City forward, now at Milan.
A man who has won the Champions League, three Serie A titles, the Coppa Italia, the Premier League and FA Cup at just 23 should have answered any questions regarding his right to a starting berth for his country long ago. Yet after an indifferent season with Milan and having failed to score for Italy since October, the doubt continues.
Two years ago Balotelliillustrated for club and country why he has seduced a host of managers into deciding the off-field antics and erratic displays are worth living with for those precious moments that win games and titles.
Sergio Agüero has gone down as the hero of City’s last-gasp championship triumph of that 2011-12 season for his late winner in the 3-2 final day win over Queens Park Rangers. Yet without Balotelli’s ice-cold composure that moved him topass to Agüero for the strike, when the Italian might have taken a pot-shot himself, there would have been no end to City’s 44-year title drought.
Weeks later Balotelli became the first black footballer to represent Italy at a major tournament and, after initially struggling, emerged as a star of Euro 2012.
Lasting only 56 minutes of the 1-1 draw with Spain in Italy’s opening match, Balotelli was replaced on 69 minutes in the following game, another 1-1 draw against Croatia. He finally scored in the 2-0 win over the Republic of Ireland, though only as a late substitute after being dropped by Prandelli.
Do not be surprised to see a similar pattern as Italy’s Group D campaign in Brazil unfolds if Balotelli struggles against England. Prandelli says: “Clearly we have some healthy competition up front. Everyone has a chance. Whoever doesn’t play will have to accept the choices.”
What Prandelli has indicated is a reluctance to choose Balotelli and Immobile together. “Anything is possible but having two centre forwards with so many quality midfielders would be forcing things a bit,” he says.
So when it comes to deciding who should be the lone forward to face England in the Amazonian heat for a match that could prove vital, Prandelli’s thoughts may turn to how Balotelli took the contest to Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-final.
In the biggest game of his career Balotelli did not disappoint, scoring twice to blow Joachim Löw’s team away in a 2-1 win.
The tournament ended in crushing disappointment as Spain trounced Italy 4-0 in the final but Balotelli’s pivotal role for City and Italy meant he could claim to have crossed the Rubicon to leave unfulfilled potential and immaturity behind.
Or so it seemed. The following campaign at City would be the last of his three at the Etihad, and the poorest. Roberto Mancini, the paternal figure who brought Balotelli to the club, finally lost patience with the wayward striker in January, when they became embroiled in a training ground scuffle after Balotelli’s X-rated tackle on Scott Sinclair.
That was two weeks after Balotelli –somewhat unbelievably, even for him – came close to taking City to a Premier League tribunal to fight a £340,000 fine for missing 11 matches due to suspension. Balotelli’s inevitable exit for Milan came laced with words of “love” for Mancini as the man who, however exasperated, somehow always stuck by him.
Fast forward a year and the hope for Prandelli and Italy fans is that Balotelli’s engagement to Fanny Negueshawill allow an inner peace he can take into the World Cup.
He announced his happiness on Instagram, alongside a picture of his fiancee’s ring. He wrote: “She said yes.. The most important yes in my life. That was the place of my question! I Love you and happy birthday too! Je t’aime my WIFE’.
Balotelli and the World Cup are about to discover if there is to be a mutual love-in, too.