Soccer

Prandelli defends Balotelli call up despite ban

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FLORENCE, Italy (AP)

Italy coach Cesare Prandelli defended his code of ethics Monday after being criticized for calling up Mario Balotelli following the temperamental striker's latest outburst.

On Sunday, Balotelli finished serving a three-match ban with AC Milan for insulting and intimidating the referee in Serie A.

''If there was (one more match on the ban) Balotelli would not be here. Period. There's nothing to discuss,'' Prandelli said. ''I've never called up a player that is banned.''

While Italy has already qualified for next year's World Cup, the Azzurri convened for training Monday ahead of their final two fixtures against Denmark and Armenia.

''Of course I'm angry. But everyone who saw what happened and wants well for Mario should be angry,'' Prandelli said. ''We can't lose our motivation to help this kid become stronger and better balanced - because he's one of the best players we have.

''I decided to call him up because that's our way to handle these things, to look each other in the eye in the changing room, discuss it and agree it will never happen again,'' the coach added. ''We've got six or seven months to show that we're ready and mature enough to handle the pressure of a World Cup.''

Prandelli left Balotelli off the squad for a friendly against the United States last year when he was suspended for four matches for his stomp on Tottenham's Scott Parker while the forward was with Manchester City.

The alarming rate of Balotelli's red cards has led some critics to suggest it isn't worth the risk having him on Italy's squad.

''I'm tired of these crusades against Balotelli,'' Prandelli said. ''When everyone is against somebody I like to defend that person. ... Despite all the problems, here we are, we're still together and we can still do a lot together.''

Prandelli also noted the impressive form of 37-year-old Roma captain Francesco Totti.

''If the World Cup were in 20 days, I wouldn't have any doubt. Totti would come,'' Prandelli said.

Totti retired from the national team after helping Italy win the 2006 World Cup but there has been ongoing speculation that he could return if he maintains his form.

Totti's play has helped Roma open the season with seven straight victories and he scored twice when Roma won 3-0 at Inter Milan on Saturday.

Antonio Cassano, another forward who used to be a fixture in Italy's attack, has also raised his form lately.

Cassano scored one goal and set up two others when Parma beat Sassuolo 3-1 Sunday.

Cassano hasn't featured for Italy since he helped the squad reach the final of last year's European Championship.

''Antonio played one of his best matches in recent years yesterday, so he's clearly very motivated,'' Prandelli said. ''A month before the World Cup we'll evaluate everyone's physical condition, and without forgetting the group of players that helped us qualify, I'll make a definitive decision.''

One forward who was called up after a long absence was Giuseppe Rossi, the United States-born striker who was bothered by injuries for the last two years.

However, Rossi has some aches and pains and Prandelli said he would need to evaluate his condition before deciding if he can play.

Also Monday, midfielder Daniele De Rossi was immediately sent home with a left thigh injury.

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