Prior to Euro 2012, Italy striker Mario Balotelli warned that if racially abused, he would walk off the pitch and go home. But after having racially charged bile hurled at him from opposing fans and even newspaper cartoonists back in his home country, Balotelli decided that instead of leaving, he would stay to score goals, flex his muscles and hug his mother. And in Italy's semifinal match against heavily favored Germany, that's exactly what he did, helping to set up a rematch of Italy's tournament opening against Spain (the first meeting ended 1-1).
After squandering too many chances early in the tournament and scoring one of its best goals against Ireland, the 21-year-old's confidence and self-belief has remained his strength. He missed shot after shot in Italy's quarterfinal against England, but still volunteered to take the first penalty in the shootout Italy would eventually win to put them in the semifinal. And despite everything from a previous home fireworks accident, a string of bizarre myths about him and indiscipline on the pitch that earned four red cards in the last two season all drawing overwhelming scrutiny for Mario, he's remained incredibly focused on his task.
Balotelli normally doesn't even smile, let alone celebrate, when he scores goals because, as he puts it, scoring goals is his job and that's all he's doing. Yet, when he scored with a header to give Italy a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute against Germany, he did both. And when he scored again 16 minutes later with a powerful blast into the top corner of the net, he pulled off his shirt and flexed -- standing still as a statue with a ferocious stare that told his detractors and abusers to back off.
Though Balotelli was shown a yellow card for taking off his shirt and had to be subbed off in the 70th minute after cramping up, his two goals were enough to make him the tournament's joint top scorer and put Italy in the final with a 2-1 win. Mario Balotelli is harnessing his talent and taking control.
UPDATE: After the match, Balotelli revealed that he dedicated his goals to his adoptive mother, Silvia. From The Mirror:
Balotelli said: "What image I will take this game? Certainly after the game when I went to my mom and I said, 'These goals are for you.'
"I waited for this moment for so long, especially since Mom came up to here and I wanted to make her happy.
"Tonight was the most beautiful of my life, but I hope that this Sunday is even better. Now we just need to rest assured and beat the Spanish."