Mario Balotelli's Italy Career so Far in 7 Key Moments
Mario Balotelli hasn't always had the easiest of times, with fierce media and the public scrutinising everything the young Italian does. Of course, Balo brings a lot of it on himself.
Earlier in his career it looked dangerously likely that the Milan front-man would be famous as Italy's resident enfant terrible and little else, because trouble seemed to follow him no matter where he went.
Time seems to be mellowing Balotelli, however, and he is now at the very heart of the Italy set-up and manager Cesare Prandelli's future plans.
Let's look at some of the most iconic moments in the talented striker's international career so far.
Italian Citizenship and His Debut Goal
It took Balo little more than half an hour on his U21 debut to make a difference, scoring a sublimely controlled volley against Greece to put his side ahead in September 2008.
Before Balotelli became an Italian citizen, Ghana boss Claude Le Roy had tried repeatedly to recruit the young striker for his own side, but Balotelli wasn't interested.
He'd grown up an Italian and wanted to wear the famous shirt of the Azzurri. When he was eventually allowed, he proved quickly that he was worthy.
Poland, November 11, 2011
After the disastrous showing at the 2010 World Cup, Italy were in need of renovation and Prandelli was the man chosen for the job.
Balotelli was one of several young players called up by the former Fiorentina manager, and after making his debut against Côte d'Ivoire in August 2010, he bagged his first goal—an incredible effort from distance showing wonderful control and vision—for the senior side against Poland.
It was the first ever scored by a black player for Italy.
The Hand of Bonucci
Balotelli was disappointing in the opening game of Euro 2012 against Spain and after spurning several chances, he was replaced by Antonio Di Natale.
The press were quick to denounce the performance as immature and selfish, so when Super Mario bagged his first goal at a major tournament not long after, against the Republic of Ireland, a typically-Mario reaction seemed likely.
His team-mate Leonardo Bonucci chose to protect the striker from his own impetuousness, fearing that Balotelli's instincts might cause him to say something he'd later regret.
As a moment in time, it perfectly encapsulated the young forward: Brilliant, exciting, troublesome.
Euro 2012 was all about Balotelli, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Awful against Spain, better against Ireland, without equal against Germany.
The perfect header and a blistering strike from outside the box humbled the mighty Germany and earned Prandelli's men a place in the final against Spain.
Racism Rears Its Ugly Head
Racist abuse is unfortunately nothing new to Balotelli, who has endured taunts from rival fans for years at club level.
Against Croatia at Euro 2012, however, the striker had to suffer it in an Azzurri shirt from sections of the opposing fans. The Croatians would later be fined €80,000 by UEFA for the incident, but no amount of money is just punishment in the face of such disgusting behaviour.
Balotelli is an entertaining and extremely gifted young man. It's a tragedy that so much of the talk surrounding his career thus far has been about racism.
Problems in Prague
But just when Italy fans thought that Balotelli's teething problems were finally behind him, he was needlessly sent off in an important World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic in Prague.
The young forward picked up two bookings within three minutes and was shown red with 20 minutes still to go. He was furious with the referee, but his teammates had a right to be furious with Balotelli for jeopardising their campaign.
Luckily, the Azzurri managed to secure a draw, but it was still a case of what might have been, had their star forward not been so impetuous.
An Audience with the Pope
It's a sign of how far the current bad boy of Italian football has come that he can bring a smile to the face of one of the world's most powerful men.
Pope Francis is a keen football fan, so it was only natural that he held an audience with the Italian national side before their recent glamour friendly with his native Argentina in Rome.
From humble beginnings and a difficult childhood all the way to the Vatican. And this is only the beginning.