Preamble: Welcome to what I immediately acknowledge will be Mario Balotelli-obsessed coverage of tonight’s Euro 2012 soccer final between Italy and Spain in Kiev.
Now that we have discovered, most improbably, that the bizarrely hair-styled, intermittently ill-tempered, but undeniably talented 21-year-old was raised from age three by a nice Jewish family in the village of Concesio, in Brescia east of Milan, we’re watching his every move.
Latest revelations about Balotelli’s family include reports that he has relatives in Israel, and a Balotelli sister who studied at the prestigious InterDisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Latest revelations about Balotelli the footballer include the news that he is set to start tonight’s game.
That might sound obvious, given that it was his two goals that sent Italy past Germany into the final. But he was substituted in that game, having taken a knock, and his coach Cesare Prandelli has not always placed complete faith in the player — dropping him from the last group match against Ireland, before he came off the bench to score.
He celebrated his two goals against Germany by embracing his foster mom Silvia after the game. She and husband Francesco are expected to be in the stadium tonight.
Italy’s Jewish sports stars are apparently inspiring each other. No sooner has Balotelli gained honorary membership of the tribe than word spreads from the world of tennis of another rising star: Camila Giorgi.
If you haven’t heard of her until now, don’t feel too guilty.
The 20-year-old Italian was ranked 145th in the world going into this week’s Wimbledon Championships — at which point she became a world-beater, winning six matches in succession to move through the qualifiers and into the last 16. Tomorrow, she’ll play Agnieszka Radwanska, the third seed, for a spot in the quarter-finals.
Radwanska is a two-time Wimbledon quarter-finalist, but hasn’t fared too well in the tournament in the last couple of years. And Giorgi is playing with a confidence that quite belies her relatively low ranking.
The closing ceremonies are coming to an end. The players are in the tunnel. A tracksuited Buffon, Italy’s reassuring goalkeeper and captain, is first in line. He and midfielder maestro Pirlo have been the key players in Italy’s unexpected rise to the final. Along with Balotelli, of course.
Balotelli is last man out, holding hands with a young awe-struck kid. He’s checking his boots. Looking down. Here he comes. Oh, and there’s even a smile.
The hair-style is the familiar thin blond mohawk, for those who follow such matters. Buffon is singing the Italian national anthem, eyes-closed, with gusto. In the crowd, the camera focuses on three celebratory men in Italian shirts — one of them, in the middle, black.
Spain are striker deprived. Italy have two: Balotelli and Cassano. Numbers 9 and 10, respectively. And here we go.
And Balotelli goes to ground almost immediately down the right. Here come the Italians. Pirlo gets the first shot on goal. Wide and going wider.
Balotelli has already made a couple of crunching tackles, drawing some Spanish ire and a certain amount of whistling. Now he’s down again in the Spanish penalty area, having failed to connect to an ambitious pass. Sergio Ramos was covering him well.
The Spanish are getting on top, as befits favorites and holders. A free kick wasted. Now a corner. Segio Ramos heads over.
Spain passing beautifully. Fabregas sets up Xavi, who fires narrowly over. Mario, where are you? Oh, here he is, racing to an impossible ball. Spanish goalie Casillas easily gets there first.
Italy can barely hold the ball. Long optimistic whomping passes upfield, that Balotelli can’t get close to. And here come Spain. Goal!!
Iniesta to Fabregas down the right. Great ball. Fabregas times the cross perfectly. David Silva heads home. Fourteen minutes gone. Devastating.
Balotelli fouled outside the box. Free kick to Italy. Perfect Pirlo range, maybe. Balotelli is also behind the ball. He leaves it. Pirlo shoots… over, with a deflection. Corner. Casillas palms away at full stretch. Di Rossi touches it. Goal kick.
Back come Italy. Another ball aimed at Balotelli, but doesn’t reach him. Another corner.
Italy keeping the pressure on. Another corner, cleared by Spain. End to end stuff. Pirlo stops Iniesta in the box. Chiellini is in trouble — that’s a big blow for Italy. He’s been a rock in the tournament, and now he’s off injured after only 20 minutes.
Balotelli has switched to the left. Another ball his way, another ball he can’t get to. Signs of frustration. Sergio Ramos is tracking him rather too closely for his liking.
Spain’s Pique goes into the book, for a nasty tackle on Cassano. Now Sergio Ramos brings down Balotelli. Clean tackle, says the ref. Looked ugly from our perspective.
First chance for Balotelli. Substitute defender Balzaretti crosses from the left. Up goes our boy, but Casillas is there first to push away. Still Pirlo, who engineered everything that Italy have done well in this tournament, can’t find a way to impose himself on the game.
Balotelli instrumental now in an attack that ends up with Cassano shooting weakly at Casillas. Italy’s best period of the game so far.
Pirlo takes a free kick barely inside the Spanish half and attempts a ridiculously optimistic shot, which goes wide.
Cassano fires a scorcher at Casillas, who punches firmly away. Italy holding the ball better now, but still weak in the final third of the field. Balotelli walking around splay-footed, looking under-employed.
Balotelli gets the ball outside the Spanish box on the left, but can’t find a way through. Still Spain are controlling the midfield.
Balotelli gives the ball away, and the Spanish are on a break. Back come Italy. Balotelli tries a one-two and then fires from outside the box — over the bar, but not bad. His first shot on goal after almost 40 minutes. He’s motioning in his own inimitable way now — finger to his lips, muttering something.
Pique blocks another Balotelli effort to make space outside the box. Spain are away again. Fast move cuts Italy apart. Goal!! 2-0.
Jordi Alba scores his first goal for Spain after a breakway that simply tore Italy apart. Spain are crushing them here.
Balotelli out on the right now. Has the ball, has time, but has no one to pass to, and winds up losing the ball again. Here come Spain, fast and furious. Iniesta is cut down. Free kick. Buffon saves the eventual shot, thinks the half is over and boots upfield.
Here’s the half-time whistle now. Not a good first period for Italy and Mario. He and Cassano didn’t combine, and with Italy’s midfield outplayed by Spain, the two big forwards were largely under-utilized. How long into the second half will Italy even persevere with two strikers?
Welcome back for the second half. And Italy are going to need a miracle to turn this around. That second Spanish goal was masterful. Just a few touches from goalkeeper to goal — with Xavi’s perfect pass leaving Jordi Alba with almost no choice but to beat the exposed Buffon. Last time I looked, Jordi Alba was playing left-back. What was he doing popping up at inside left? Spain seem to have elevated Johann Cruyff’s total football to a new dimension.
Italy seem ponderous by comparison and, painful though this is to write, Balotelli and Cassano look like a couple of old-fashioned English center forwards, outskilled and outpaced by the nimble continentals. Except that we know Italy can play better than this. They’ve got 45 minutes to remind us, and save this game.
Italy have made a substitution, and it’s Cassano who’s gone, unsurprisingly. Di Natale is on — and immediately gets in a dangerous header, just over.
Spain quickly back in their stride. Fabregas shoots wide from outside the box. Spain back in the box, Fabregas foiled by Buffon, but it was nearly 3-0. Free kick to Spain. Calls for handball. Ref waves play on. Clear handball by Bonucci; got away with it.
Spain are flying. Silva out on his own nearly conjures a goal out of nowhere.
Balotelli out on the left, tries to cut through two defenders into the box. He falls theatrically but the referee isn’t buying.
Di Natale fires from close range — Italy’s clearest chance — and Casillas blocks him. The substitution is paying off, that’s for sure. But it’s still Spain who look faster and more dangerous.
Italy haven’t given up. They’ve had a fair share of possession, it’s just that Spain, striker-less Spain, have scored those two gorgeous goals, and are bossing the midfield.
Iniesta, the magician, plays Fabregas through again, but atypically, he fails to control the ball and the chance is gone.
Balotelli is looking increasingly frustrated. Di Natale is taking the central striking position, but getting nowhere too. Pirlo overhits a ball he can’t reach, and it’s easy for Casillas.
Another Italian substitution — Montolivo for Motta. That’s all three subs used by Italy. Desperate stuff with more than a third of the game to go.
Balotelli turns his man and sets di Natale free, but Ramos brings him down. Free kick. Pirlo prepares. Balotelli waits… And Casillas fists clear. Balotelli collects, and shoots hard, high and wide again.
Spain substitute Silva, the first goal-scorer. His work is done. Pedro Rodriguez replaces him.
Thirty minutes for Italy to save this game. Motto is down, badly hurt it seems. And the danger of using all three substitutions this early is made plain. Looks like he’s pulled a muscle. Off he goes on a stretcher. Prandelli’s side are down to 10 men, facing mighty Spain, world champs and Euro champs, with a two-goal deficit. Mario, this is your moment!
Another Italian free kick. Pirlo out on the left, wastes it. He’s having a very poor game by his standards. A lot of pushing in the box, but nothing to whistle about.
Balotelli comes back to collect in his own half, and handballs. Spain on the attack. Fabregas loses the ball, Italy clear out to the left, and now we see Balotelli — who appears to be playing on the left of midfield now, trying to plug the gaps in the undermanned Italian formation.
The Israeli commentators are feeling sorry for him, that’s how bad things are. Poor fellow, says one, as the camera shows him meandering, head down, on the left side of the field. Well, the first half was better, says the other. Hardly.
Italy can barely get the ball now. The crowd are singing “Ole, ole,” which is humiliating for the Italians, as Spain pass easily around the midfield. Abate, on the right of the Italian defense, has so lost concentration he fails to control as easy ball and gives away a throw. Italy win it back. Buffon whacks up to Balotelli, who controls it well, but Di Natale is offside. Less than 20 minutes to go, and the Spaniards in the crowd are pretty sure it’s all over.
Balotelli is again crowded out by Spanish defenders, and Spain are in the penalty area again, with Buffon relieved to grab the loose ball.
Iniesta tries to wriggle through. Now Xavi tries his luck. Italy are defending fairly desperately. Fabregas is going off, his tournament over, his winner’s medal all-but guaranteed. And one comes the fallen hero of Spain, Fernando Torres, blunted Chelsea striker, anxious to make some kind of mark on the championships.
Corner to Spain. Italy’s defense holds firm. But they need to be on the attack, and they can’t get the ball out of their own half. Pirlo is full of running, but he’s getting nowhere. Balotelli has the ball, tries to flick the ball into the Spanish penalty box. Blocked. Spain break, in a flash, and seem through on goal but get caught offside. Balotelli, hands together in semi-prayer, fails to break through on the right wing now. He’s popping up everywhere, working hard, but has nothing go show for it. Ten minutes to go.
Spain are still looking for a third, but not too hard. Motta’s injury really doomed Italy in the second half. Oh, disaster. The mortal Pirlo gives the ball away in the center of the Italian half, and Spain are through. Torres slots home with his first touch. Goal!!! 3-0. Game well and truly over now.
Well, that’s the killer blow in a one-sided game. Torres’s 31-st goal for Spain, and his third in this tournament. Iniesta gets a huge ovation as he makes way for Mata, another Chelsea star. What a squad Spain have. Mata would waltz into the first 11 of almost any other national team.
And out of nothing, 4-0 — Goal!!! This is humiliating now. A beautiful cross-field ball to Torres. Rather than shoot, he squares to Mata. Perfect. Buffon could do nothing.
We’re into stoppage time now — three minutes before Italy are out of their misery. Balotelli is strolling near the center circle, hands limp at his sides. It’s a lost cause, and his body language couldn’t signal it more clearly. He manages a jog as the Spanish bustle past him. Pirlo gives away a free kick. Not 5-0, surely?
Torres finds Ramos at the near post, and he tries to back heel past Buffon. The goalie is equal to the challenge. Again Torres is motoring, but blocked. And the final whistle blows. It’s over. Spain are champions again!
Balotelli storms off the pitch, pushing officials out of his way. What a sad end to his tournament, to Italy’s tournament. But they did well to get to the final. And Spain are, well, Spain are in a different class to everybody right now.
Now we wait to see the medal ceremonies, and to see whether our Mario will reappear to pick up his loser’s one. The Spanish players are hanging out on the pitch with their various small children. The Italy fans look appropriately defeated. Balotelli is still nowhere to be seen, as the rest of his teammates wait for the medals. Ah, here he is, water bottle in hand, blank expression, returning to the field to rejoin the other players. So at least no scandal there.
The referee, Portugal’s Pedro Proenca, collects his medal with his assistants. Now come Buffon and the Italian team. Balotelli is at the back again, a few paces adrift of his teammates. Lots of handshakes and forced smiles. Balotelli gets his loser’s medal from UEFA’s Michel Platini. Left hand on hip. He looks mightily unhappy. Tonight, for Mario, it was not to be. He walks slowly down the stairs. It’s Spain’s night tonight. They’re coming now to collect their medals and hold the trophy aloft, emphatically deserved winners. Balotelli will have to wait for glory.
The delighted Spanish players are dancing with the trophy. The celebrations are in full flow. It’ll take a great team to defeat them.
Thanks for staying with me on a bitterly disappointing night for Italy and Balotelli, and a great night for free-flowing Spanish soccer artistry. G’night!