POZNAN, Poland (AFP)
Mario Balotelli came off the bench to score the clinching second
goal in Italy's 2-0 win over Ireland and open his account at the
European Championships here.
It was only his second goal in 11 international appearances.
But the lasting image of his moment in the limelight wasn't the
athleticism with which he hooked a volley over his shoulder and
past Shay Given; nor was it his composure and strength in holding
off the close attention of John O'Shea, who had almost pulled
Balotelli's shirt clean off his back.
It was instead, in true Balotelli fashion, his reaction to the
Far from expressing joy at his contribution to the victory, the
errant and temperamental talent seemed angry and started to shout
something in the general direction of his own bench.
Showing the political nous of a seasoned government spin doctor
Leonardo Bonucci immediately grabbed the controversial
21-year-old in a celebratory hug and thrust his hand over
Speaking after the game, Bonucci then showed footwork worthy of
his eccentric team-mate to side-step questions over what exactly
was Balotelli's gripe.
"What he said he said in English and I didn't understand it,"
said the Juventus centre-back, who like Balotelli had come on as
"I put my hand in front because Mario is instinctive and that's
also his strength.
"We'd spoken with him before the game and he knew how he should
Thanks to Bonucci's quick thinking, it wasn't clear who was the
target of Balotelli's ire.
Italy could ill afford another controversy following the
calcioscommesse match-fixing scandal that interrupted their
preparations before the tournament, or Antonio Cassano's
ill-judged comments on homosexuality.
Balotelli had started both Italy's first two group matches but
came under fire in the press for his uninspired performances and
failure to score.
Italy coach Claudio Prandelli had also criticised him for failing
to follow his instructions to get beyond the defence.
He was dropped in favour of Antonio Di Natale, only entering the
fray in the final 20 minutes.
The Manchester City forward was roundly jeered throughout his
cameo by Ireland's fans but whether he was angry at them, his
coach or the Italian media was far from obvious.
But Italy have been keeping hacks busy at this tournament. As
well as the sports-betting and homophobia controversies, there
was the racism probe after Balotelli was allegedly abused by both
Spanish and Croatian fans and then most recently paranoid talk of
Italy would have crashed out of the competition had Spain and
Croatia drawn their final match 2-2 or a higher score draw,
sending both of them through instead, and the Italian press was
awash with rumours of a stitch-up, known as a "biscotto" or
biscuit in Italian.
Odds on a 2-2 draw were the shortest available in betting shops
But captain Gianluigi Buffon claimed he never had any doubts
Spain would be playing to win.
"I was always calm over the last few days because I was convinced
that Spain, to whom we owe huge thanks, would behave like a great
team," said the 2006 World Cup winning goalkeeper.
In reality, had Spain not managed their late winner over Croatia,
Italy would actually have won the group on head-to-head records.
Straight after the game, Italy did not know if they had qualified
because as it turned out, even a 1-1 draw in the other game would
have sent them home.
Midfielder Claudio Marcisio said the wait to find out the other
score was interminable.
"It was surreal, I saw Gigi (Buffon) come up for the last corner
and I thought Spain and Croatia were drawing 1-1," he said.
"In fact that wasn't the case but that minute before the news
came through never ended."