Mario's moment: Balotelli holds the key for Italy
It's time for Mario Balotelli to get serious.
The wild-headed Manchester City forward is about to make his first start for Italy in a major tournament and the expectations couldn't be higher.
No other player in Italy's team has the combination of talent and physical prowess that the 21-year-old Balotelli possesses, and that could be just what the Azzurri need in their European Championship opener against Spain on Sunday.
''There's nothing to discuss about Mario in terms of football, because he's a pure talent - one of the few players who can make you win matches,'' Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon said Saturday.
But Balotelli has struggled to harness his explosive behavior, both on and off the pitch.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli left Balotelli out of the squad for a friendly against the United States in February after he received a four-match suspension a month earlier for his stamp on Tottenham's Scott Parker.
With Prandelli's urging, Balotelli issued a public apology in April for another act of indiscipline with City, having picked up his fourth red card in two seasons with the English club, for lunging at Arsenal defender Bacary Sagna's knee.
And earlier this season, Balotelli had to come up with an explanation for English authorities after a fire broke out in his house when fireworks were let off in his bathroom.
''Off the pitch, he's always behaved well with us,'' Buffon said. ''But when you're (21) years old, it's OK to have some growing pains, it's OK to make some mistakes.''
Prandelli was also complimentary of Balotelli's behavior since arriving in Poland, but he's demanding improved teamwork from the striker.
''All kids in their 20s want to show what their worth and capable of, but this week Mario has behaved just as well as everyone else,'' Prandelli said. ''He's shown tremendous growth, and (teamwork) could be the key to success for him.''
In City's run to the Premier League title this past season, Balotelli moved in and out of manager Roberto Mancini's lineup - seemingly according to his mood swings.
''I need to be sure that I have always 11 players on the pitch,'' Mancini said after Balotelli's red card against Arsenal. ''With Mario, it's always a big risk. Every time we risk one (man) being sent off, even if he can also score in the last minute.''
Former Italy coach Marcello Lippi had similar worries, and left Balotelli out of his squad for the 2010 World Cup, when the Azzurri were eliminated in the first round. And according to Italy midfielder Thiago Motta, Balotelli hasn't changed since they both played for Inter Milan a couple of seasons ago.
''Mario is a great kid, and he means well, but he still makes me mad sometimes, and not only me,'' Motta said. ''He needs to realize that he's defending the national team shirt.''
Born to Ghanian immigrants, Balotelli was adopted by an Italian family as a toddler and is often faced with racism inside stadiums. In November during a friendly against Poland, he became the first black player to score for Italy.
In a recent interview, he threatened to walk off the pitch if any racism is directed his way at this tournament, prompting UEFA President Michel Platini to warn that would result in a yellow card.
''It's not the player, Mr. Balotelli, who is in charge'' of refereeing a match, Platini said.
''I think a yellow card would be excessive,'' midfielder Daniele De Rossi said.
According to UEFA's official tournament list, Balotelli will have both his family names on his shirt for this tournament - ''Barwuah Balotelli.'' He uses just the Balotelli name on his shirt when playing for City.
Prandelli was also asked what Italy might do if Balotelli is taunted for the color of his skin.
''If it happens,'' the coach said, ''we all need to embrace Balotelli.''
AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas in Warsaw contributed to this report.