James Horncastle

Shades of Roberto Mancini at Euro 1988 in Mario Balotelli at Euro 2012

Posted on June 22nd, 2012

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 at 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 – when monkey chants were heard and a banana thrown on to 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 have 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 semi-final 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 re-pay 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. Their 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 trumpet 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 weren’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.”


© David Cannon /Getty Images

This article first appeared on FoxSoccer.com 























Serie A Preview 2013-14: Enthusiasm calls to mind the `80s and `90s

Posted on August 23rd, 2013

If you were just anyone coming through arrivals at an Italian airport this summer, you could be forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on. Hundreds of people at a time were often waiting for a big name signing to emerge through customs.  It was reminiscent of the `80s and `90s in Serie A. People came from far and wide just to catch a first glimpse of their new idols.


Juventus supporters made the trip from Turin to Milan to welcome Carlos Tevez at Malpensa. Napoli fans travelled to Rome to greet Gonzalo Higuain at Fiumicino. Roma fans were there too when Kevin Strootman landed.


As they pushed their way through the crowds, scarves in their new team’s colours were draped around their necks and songs sung in their name. There hasn’t been this much enthusiasm ahead of a new season in Serie A for some time. Everyone’s excited. It’s a stark contrast with the mood a year ago.


Back then, it was quite underwhelming. Recall, for instance, the final recruitment of Italy’s traditional Big Three. Juventus loaned Nicklas Bendtner from Arsenal. Inter overpaid for Porto’s Alvaro Pereira and Milan bought Nigel de Jong. With all due respect [particularly to the latter who missed the season with an Achilles injury], none of them set the pulse racing.


For most people the best signing of last summer was made by Napoli, but it wasn’t to bring a player in rather to make one stay. Edinson Cavani’s contract extension and the €63m buy-out clause included within was a coup and it would become one of the year’s major narratives.


So the sense was that many teams had more or less stayed the same, got worse or had done little to improve themselves. The only club to really capture the imagination back then was Fiorentina with the overhaul of their squad and the purchases of Gonzalo Rodriguez, David Pizarro, Alberto Aquilani, Borja Valero, Ivan Cuadrado and Mati Fernandez.


This summer, as we’ve already established, they’re not alone in causing a stir, although once again Fiorentina deserve credit for reawakening a passion that lay dormant in many of their own supporters as well as that within neutrals in Italy and Serie A enthusiasts across the world.


More than 25,000 supporters were at the Artemio Franchi for Mario Gomez’s unveiling as a Fiorentina player last month and the same number were in attendance again for the presentation of the team for the new season this week.


Napoli also practically sold out San Paolo in July as they introduced new coach Rafa Benitez and the team’s six new acquisitions to the fans. Fireworks were let off, an official cheerleading troupe formed and a camouflage third shirt released as part of the kit launch.


Commanding Europe’s attention following the sale of Cavani, shock-waves emanated from the vicinity of Vesuvius as Napoli reinvested all of the proceeds and promised to spend even more. There was a great swagger about them, a bravado, but what else would you expect from a club presided over by Aurelio De Laurentiis. Along with Monaco, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, for a time they were the driving force of the transfer window.


Put another way, Napoli were to Serie A this summer what Tottenham are to the Premier League at the moment: a club with a star, whose sale will allow them to acquire a small galaxy of other quality players, which could well make the team more formidable as a whole. Whether Napoli turn out better without Cavani or not remains to be seen but the exit of one player and the entry of six has created quite a buzz.


It has, to an extent, drowned out the sighs provoked by some of the league’s best players leaving. Last year it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva. This year, in addition to Cavani, Stevan Jovetic has gone and no sooner had Marquinhos emerged, like Matija Nastasic 12 months earlier, than he was sold too. Erik Lamela may yet be traded as well.


There’s understandable regret, but at least the money for these players is going to clubs outside the traditional Big Three who, for the most part, have used it to strengthen, which in turn has given the impression of Serie A having greater depth and being more competitive


True it’s not at the Seven Sisters level of the late `90s and early 2000s – it may never be again – but after 12 years residence between Milan and Turin there’s a genuine belief that maybe, just maybe, the Scudetto could move south this season.


And besides, though some Serie A favourites have left, others have returned. Don’t forget that Milan brought Mario Balotelli back in the winter or how over the same period Fiorentina offered the recuperating Giuseppe Rossi the chance to return to Italy six years after last playing there for Parma.


This can’t be anything but good news in a World Cup year for Cesare Prandelli and the national team which, 12 months after finishing runners’ up at Euro 2012, came third at the Confederations Cup. The Under-21s incidentally also reached the final of the European Championship in Israel. Members of that squad could play more in Serie A. A lot more. The back five, for instance, all belonged to Inter and were either out on loan and still are or have subsequently been sold. Even so, the signs are encouraging.


There’s an optimism about Italian football that hasn’t been there for a while. Fans are returning to its stadiums. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, 28,000 more season tickets have been sold than at this time last year. Twelve of Serie A’s 20 clubs have recorded an increase. New signings not to mention the prospect of Italy’s five biggest derbies, those of Turin, Rome, Milan, Verona and Genoa all taking place in Serie A this season means there is plenty to look forward to.


Genuine, if slow, progress is being made to enhance the spectacle and viewing experience of the Italian game. After the inauguration of Juventus’ privately owned ground two years ago, Udinese effectively established ownership of the Stadio Friuli this summer, securing a 99-year leasehold. Renovations are underway. Promoted Sassuolo also have a home that they can call their own – the Mapei Stadium – [though they share it with Reggiana].


Building one for Inter is primarily what’s motivating Massimo Moratti to make the heart-wrenching decision to sell a majority stake in the club to Erik Thohir. The Indonesian, it’s hoped, will bring the finance needed to fund its construction and take the club forward.


After Roma’s acquisition by an American consortium a couple of years ago, it’s an indication that Italian football, despite all its image and structural problems, can appeal to the kind of foreign investors who are choosing to put their money into the Premier League and Ligue 1.


Issues do remain of course. Unless their appeal is successful, Lazio’s Curva Nord will be closed for Sunday’s opener against Udinese after a section of the club’s supporters racially abused Juventus’ black players during the Italian Super Cup last weekend.


Roma’s Curva Sud is also shut for their first home game of the campaign against Hellas Verona after a number of supporters were heard making discriminatory chants about Mario Balotelli during their final league match at the Stadio Olimpico against Napoli last season. It’s a disgrace, but the measures taken by the Italian authorities are at least tougher than the paltry fines doled out in recent years.


Also it’s worth remembering that the six people who racially insulted Kevin Prince-Boateng during Milan’s friendly with Pro Patria in the spring, prompting him to walk-off, have since been given prison sentences. It’s hoped that the threat of such action will be a serious deterrent and change attitudes over time.


As for match-fixing, when Lazio captain Stefano Mauri was banned for six months earlier this summer [a punishment that he’s appealing] and the club were fined, many suspected that the game had been blighted again. It hadn’t.


This was the climax of an investigation into allegations surrounding Lazio’s matches against Genoa and Lecce at the end of the season before last. Credibility has been restored incrementally in the meantime. After Calciopoli and then Scommessopoli, fans are beginning to believe what they’re seeing again. It’s another reason why fans are returning to grounds in their thousands.


Take, for instance, the final day of last season, Siena had nothing to play for against Milan. They’d already been relegated so typically you’d expect them to roll over against a team who needed to win in order to secure a place in the Champions League. But Siena didn’t. They took the lead and were unlucky to lose 2-1. They played hard from beginning to end. It was another encouraging sign that things are indeed changing for the better.


After some dark days, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, a bright light that reinvigorates, one that, in its glow, makes you feel upbeat and hopeful of a great season ahead in Serie A.