Try as they might, the Italy players couldn’t stop him. They chased after him, grasped at his shirt in an attempt to pull him back. But they just couldn’t hold him. Roberto Mancini pushed them all away. Moments beforehand, he had finally scored his first goal for his country against West Germany in the opening game of the 1988 European Championship.
He was now running like a man possessed. The pitch couldn’t contain him. Mancini crossed the athletics track, approaching the crowd and the press box in particular at the Rheinstadion in Düsseldorf. By the look of fury on his face and the hand gestures he was throwing, it quickly became clear that rather than celebrate with his teammates he’d chosen to remonstrate with the journalists following the national team.
If that all sounds vaguely familiar then that’s because it’s another example of how, in some respects, Mancini’s playing career closely resembles that of his protégé Mario Balotelli. To find the evidence to support this case, it’s enough to reflect on the events of Italy’s final group stage match of Euro 2012 against the Republic of Ireland.
After scoring a quite spectacular scissor kick in the last minute to seal a 2-0 win, Balotelli got up off the floor and didn’t celebrate as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Except, rather than casually walk back to his own half and await the re-start he instead chose to vent the frustration that had obviously been raging within.
Before he could say anything he might regret, however, defender Leonardo Bonucci showed the presence of mind to place a hand over his teammate’s mouth and avoid a diplomatic incident. Not for the first time, many were left wondering: what on earth had got into Balotelli? His reaction was met with incomprehension in the papers back home. At whom was he aiming this outburst?
Theories abounded. Some claimed that the partisan crowd in Poznan had riled him. Whistled once he came on, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that following the racist abuse he’d suffered in Italy’s previous match, a 1-1 draw with Croatia – during which monkey chants were heard and a banana thrown onto the pitch – Balotelli might have wanted to shut everyone up.
By waving his finger around in a circular motion, he certainly appeared to indicate that he had an issue with those present in the stands, maybe even the press. According to Bonucci: “He said things in English that I didn’t understand.”
Others have suggested that Balotelli was instead directing his rage at Italy coach Cesare Prandelli for dropping him from the starting line-up. That seems unlikely given the close bond between the pair. Still, the disappointment at losing his place perhaps did make an impact on his state of mind.
Concern for Balotelli had grown before the Ireland game and persisted for a short while afterwards. Wednesday’s La Gazzetta dello Sport carried the headline: ‘Io Balo da solo’ – a neat play on words meaning: ‘I dance alone’. He reportedly cut an increasingly isolated figure in the Italy squad.
No one had pushed him out. It’s nothing like the end of his time at Inter, for instance, when, after disrespectfully tearing his shirt off and throwing it to the ground following their Champions League semifinal with Barcelona in 2010, he became a persona non grata and had to leave town for Manchester City.
Balotelli has yet to really try anyone’s patience, although a lot was made of how Antonio Nocerino shouted “cool it” at him during Tuesday’s training session. Annoying though he sometimes might be, there’s an appreciation that deep down he’s still only a kid.
"Balotelli makes me just as angry now with his jokes as he did when he was at Inter," admits Thiago Motta, "but away from the pitch he’s a good lad."
On it, however, things had not been going for him until the late cameo he made in the Ireland game. Against Spain, he felt aggrieved not to be awarded a penalty after a challenge from Gerard Piqué and twice punched the turf violently.
Then came another greater disappointment. Picking Sergio Ramos’s pocket, Balotelli found himself through on goal. Thinking he had all the time in the world, he showed no sense of urgency, allowing the Spain defender to get back and make a challenge. The chance was gone. Substituted shortly afterwards, Balotelli reproached himself on the bench as his replacement Antonio Di Natale scored with practically his first touch.
When Italy faced Croatia four days later, he didn’t exactly repay the faith shown in him by Prandelli, who decided amid calls to start with Di Natale, to keep him in the team. Balotelli underwhelmed, slightly annoying his coach by not carrying out his orders.
"I lost my voice shouting at him for 15 minutes and I didn’t manage to correct his position play," Prandelli revealed. "If we love this lad, we have to tell him these things. He was dropping deep but didn’t have the ball. Either you drop deep and get the ball or you offer me an outlet up front deep inside their half."
Facing criticism, Balotelli retreated within himself for a while. He has gradually got back to his old self after the Ireland goal, the brooding Balotelli has been replaced by his playful alter ego. Training resembled a schoolyard on Wednesday, as he broke out in a fit of giggles while provocatively holding a corner flag between his legs during a yoga session.
Balotelli’s ability to make people laugh and lighten the mood within a camp that has in the past perhaps taken things a little too seriously and allowed the pressure to mount is one of the reasons Prandelli has sought to include the likes of him, Cassano and Alessandro Diamanti in the squad. There tomfoolery is tolerated on the condition that, come game day, they stop larking about and make the team win.
Everyone acknowledges how Balotelli is a unique talent. Some consider him to be more jazz musician than footballer – Italy’s Miles Davis on trombone or John Coltrane on sax. However, for all his improv, Balotelli needs to learn to stick to the script more. Otherwise, he might find that his international career is as unfulfilled as that of Mancini.
Euro ’88 was the only major tournament Mancini ever played as a protagonist for his country. He was called up for Italia ’90 but didn’t feature once for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained. Lacking the trust of his coaches at international level, Mancini grew disillusioned. He walked away forever after Arrigo Sacchi substituted him during a friendly against Germany before USA ’94, disregarding the understanding that if Roberto Baggio wasn’t playing then he’d get a full 90 minutes.
Sacchi’s assistant Carlo Ancelotti tried to talk him out of it. Mancini was only 29 and at the peak of his powers. Alas it was no use. "Thanks for your attempts but the national team is not for me," Mancini replied. He retired with just 26 caps and nine goals to his name.
The fear is that the same fate awaits Balotelli. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Not all sons walk the same line as their football fathers. Unlike the case of Mancini, Balotelli does at least have an Italy coach who exhibits great confidence in him. Prandelli is expected to name him in his starting line up to face England in Sunday’s Euro 2012 quarter-final.
While undeniably rich in talent the question for Italy is, considering Balotelli’s temperament, can they afford to take the risk? As you’d expect, Mancini is in no doubt whatsoever. “Mario is a champion and champions help you win.”