Time Is Now for Mario Balotelli to Achieve Goals with Italy

Anthony LopopoloFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2014

MANAUS, BRAZIL - JUNE 14:  Mario Balotelli of Italy reacts during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group D match between England and Italy at Arena Amazonia on June 14, 2014 in Manaus, Brazil.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

He doesn’t want to be known as Mad Mario. He wants to be known as the best striker in the world.

The truth about Mario Balotelli, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

The 23-year-old is the only true focal point of a versatile attack for Italy, and he managed to score the winner against England in his first World Cup match. But before that crucial header, Balotelli was starting to drift. He shot up and wide, and he only had two shots on net, according to WhoScored.com.

The frustrating part about Balotelli is that he can always do more. He is brilliant for that instant—and one goal is often enough for a striker to have a good game—but it is a struggle sometimes before that instant, and sometimes that instant never arrives. In a sense he is a player in the mould of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a forward who doesn’t always look like he’s working all that much or interested at all.

And Balotelli has not done it in many of the big contests. He was indeed the man of the match during Manchester City’s FA Cup win in 2011, and he did indeed supply the pass for the title-clinching goal by Sergio Aguero, and he did indeed score twice against Germany—but those moments don’t come enough.

“Mario played a great game against England,” Cesare Prandelli told reporters, according to Sky Sports. “But I’ve told him that he can give a lot more considering his extraordinary potential.”

MANAUS, BRAZIL - JUNE 14:  An Italy fan holds a cardboard cutout of Mario Balotelli during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group D match between England and Italy at Arena Amazonia on June 14, 2014 in Manaus, Brazil.  (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images
Christopher Lee/Getty Images

He has reached a point where he must decide whether he wants to achieve his lofty goals and become one of the best. Because he isn’t world class yet—he is an unfinished product.

Not all Italians take him dearly, and it may be a minority, but it’s there. He cries like the victim because he mostly is. The fouls he suffers are numerous, the kicks and elbows real.

Balotelli has been racially abused several times since moving back to Italy, even at Italy’s training ground in Coverciano. At one point during the season, at one of his lowest points, Balotelli’s profile picture on Twitter was totally black, his page a place of despair.

The media continue their obsession with him. They obsess over his whereabouts, why he is playing table tennis in the middle of the night, who he is dating, why he is crying on the bench. “He is a young player, he is good, but you have to give him some air,” said Andrea Pirlo, reports goal.com. “When he goes to the toilet, there is no need to fill pages about Balotelli going to the toilet. Everything he does ends up in the newspapers, and I think that is unfair.”

There are also the kids who have their hair made into a mohawk like Balotelli's, the kids who chanted his name at the World Cup qualifiers in Torino and Milan and Bologna, the kids who cheered him at the training ground. Balotelli inspires the youth of his country.

But it all depends on what he does on the pitch. He is Italy’s hope just as he is the hope of those kids. Balotelli with confidence is a scary thing, and when he plays for Italy he cares a lot—as much as Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon. It's just the performances that count. Balotelli has 11 goals in 31 appearances, and that isn’t the most convincing total.

“Balotelli needs to learn how to score goals,” Silvio Berlusconi said in May.

Berlusconi: "Balotelli needs to learn how to score goals." @FinallyMario

— AC Milan News (@Milanello) May 12, 2014

While he often doesn’t score enough, he does need the service.

And he doesn’t even play at his best as an outright striker; in a more withdrawn position, on the flank or as a secondary striker, Balotelli has more freedom to play passes and set up goals. He has more to his game than game-winners, red cards and outbursts. Balotelli can perform at his best when he tracks back and starts the play from midfield, when he clears the ball and starts running.

The tournament in Brazil is just beginning, and Balotelli still has time. But what’s most important to note is that Balotelli is not Italy. There’s so much more to the team. His goal on Saturday was a product of some great manoeuvring by midfielder Claudio Marchisio, as detailed by Gianluca Nesci of theScore

We still await Antonio Cassano, whose vision is key even in humid conditions. We still have not seen enough from Ciro Immobile, Serie A’s top scorer. It’s not all left to Balotelli, but it’s up to him to achieve those other goals he has in mind.

“The most important thing is that Italy do well,” said Balotelli according to the Daily Mail. “But personally I want people to be talking about me after the Brazil for the right reasons—and also calling me a World Cup winner.”