Expect Balotelli to blossom in Brazil
On Tuesday morning, one of the great mysteries of Italy's World Cup preparation was solved.
"Finally we know why Cesare Prandelli chose a romantic but faraway place like Mangaratiba as his training base," quipped Marco Ansaldo in La Stampa. "He wanted to help Mario Balotelli in an important decision." That decision was where to propose to his girlfriend, Fanny Neguesha, on her birthday. "She said yes. The most important yes of my life," accompanied the photo in his Instagram feed.
As with anything and everything he does, it generated great discussion. Maybe he'll settle down now? Imagine if Fanny had said no. How would that have affected his mood ahead of the England game on Saturday? And what about the time of the post: 1:00 a.m. in Brazil, 6:00 a.m. in Italy. Shouldn't he have been in bed?
All these questions got column inches and air time on TV programmes and radio stations in Italy. Couldn't they just be happy for him? He's young, in love and even if it was late and he was meant to be asleep, the jet lag has been keeping some of the other squad members up at night, too.
At training later that day, there were words of congratulations and shouts of "bravo." "We applauded and hugged him," Claudio Marchisio revealed. "It's a beautiful thing, but now he has to concentrate on the World Cup like we all do."
Back to the business at hand, indeed. But a smiling and enthused Mario is surely preferable to the broody and irritable version. It must be said that Brazil does appear to have an effect on him, and a good one at that. Maybe it's something in the air, but whenever Balotelli visits he seems in high spirits and free from anxiety.
He first travelled to Brazil when still a teenager in the winter of 2007 to do some charity work in the Mata Escura favela of Salvador de Bahia. Balotelli, then at Inter, went back the following year and returned again last summer when Italy played Brazil during the Confederations Cup. In his downtime, he went for a walk to the beach. The traffic jammed up, people stopped what they were doing; they followed him as if he were Rocky or the Pied Piper.
Some thought Balotelli was crazy to go out with only a couple of security guards for protection. "Weren't you afraid?" he was asked. "Only of the journalists," Balotelli joked. As far as he was concerned, he was one of the locals -- and he tweeted as much.
Salvador !! Sembro bahiano anch io! Kkk i look like a person from Bahia!!! Kkk- Mario Balotelli (@FinallyMario) June 21, 2013
Brazilians love Balotelli. But then, of course they do. He's playful, skillful, impulsive, gets you off your seat, makes your jaw drop and captures your imagination. Balotelli scored a golaço against them in a friendly in Berne before the Confederations Cup. "If Mario were Brazilian I'd try him out and probably make him play," said the coach of the Seleçao, Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Memories of that match are perhaps what led a section of the Maracana to whistle him in the buildup to Italy's match against Mexico a year ago. Still, they couldn't stay mad at him for long. When Balotelli went off after clinching a late winner for the Azzurri, he received a standing ovation from the crowd. The volleyed back-heel assist he provided Emanuele Giaccherini when Italy met Brazil again in Salvador only added to the sense of wonder about him.
It was a shame that Balotelli suffered a muscle injury that night, one that ruled him out for the rest of the tournament. He flew home with two goals and an assist in three games. The Brazilians seemed almost as gutted about it as the Italians. They know talent when they see it and can't help but appreciate it.
His name has been Brazilianised. To them he is Balotelé. Some have adopted it for themselves or even been nicknamed after him. Jonathan Boareto dos Reis, a striker for third-division Macaé, goes by the moniker Jonathan Balotelli. There's a Wilker Balotelli on the books of Ponte Preta and a Rogelio Balotelli at Atletico Sorocaba, although he has apparently gone back to his old name, Rogelio Avila.
A phenomenon within football but also outside it, like Neymar, Balotelli transcends his sport. Both have been on the front cover of Time magazine. Both have already been through more hairstyles in their early 20s than many of us will in a lifetime. Both are symbols and carry a similar burden to perform and fulfil their promise. Their nations expect. One is at home. The other home away from home.
Notwithstanding Ciro Immobile's hat trick and two assists against Fluminense, Balotelli is expected to start against England. Some continue to claim that he has to move more. When that was put to him after Milan's defeat to Roma toward the end of this season, Balotelli's reply to Sky Italia pundit Giancarlo Marocchi was, "You don't understand anything about football." The Brazilians do. They get football in its purest sense. One imagines the neutrals in Manaus, Recife and Natal will be on his side.
It's often said of Balotelli that he needs to feel loved to express his best. Engaged this week and able to count on the affection of the host nation, this could well be his tournament.
James Horncastle contributes to ESPN, BBC Sport, Guardian Football Weekly, FourFourTwo and The Blizzard. Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.