Originally posted on The Daily Rival  |  Last updated 7/2/12

As Euro 2012 came to a close on Sunday, it was Mario Balotelli along with all of Europe and the world looking up at champion Spain. But if there was one truth to be told about the previous 23 days, it’s that this was Balotelli’s tournament.

It’s been a time when the budding superstar’s glaring potential finally transformed into reality, when his dynamic play for once overshadowed his notoriously eccentric behavior.

Balotelli’s reputation as a controversial figure precedes him (and the subsequent derision by others has been plentiful). His laundry list of irrational and boneheaded buffoonery is equal parts amusing and alarming:

  • A late-night strip club visit on the eve of a match.
  • Crashing a press conference of former club Inter Milan.
  • Sneaking onto the grounds of a women’s prison.
  • An ill-advised back heel against the L.A. Galaxy that led to an immediate benching.
  • Explaining to police the £5,000 in cash he had in his car at the time of wreck it was “Because I am rich.”
  • And the one that tops them all: the time he accidentally set his house ablaze after shooting fireworks from his bathroom.

Feel free to laugh. That’s the point. It’s a rash of behavior that some, including his own manager at Manchester City, have written off as a 21-year-old’s lack of immaturity.

“The problem is because of his age, he can make some mistakes,” Roberto Mancini said in October. “He’s Mario. He’s crazy — but I love him because he’s a good guy.”

Others haven’t been so forgiving. For Italian manager Cesare Prandelli, Balotelli’s dubious resume nearly cost the striker a spot on Italy’s Euro 2012 roster. But Balotelli made the team – barely – and did he ever repay his coach.

Balotelli’s three goals were tied for a tournament lead. His score against Ireland in the group stage exuded magnificence and was one of the tournament’s top plays. But it was his remarkable two-goal performance in the semifinal round that catapulted the Italians to their shocking victory over a favored German side.

And yet Euro 2012 wasn’t without its share of trademark Balotelli moments. One of the more lasting images from the tournament was when Balotelli, after scoring against Germany, removed his jersey – forbidden by rule – and posed defiantly, flexing his muscles as his face fashioned a scowl. He was subsequently shown a yellow card.

But, even still, we’ve witnessed a different Balotell these last three weeks in Ukraine and Poland. Balotelli wasn’t perfect. But Euro 2012 marked the transition from a petulant and undisciplined player to a respected and electric one.

There’s been no question that Balotelli is a gifted striker. But his at-times poor attitude has often clouded, minimized, impeded his abilities.

As Sunday’s final got out of hand as Spain exerted its dominance into the late stages of the game, the old Balotelli would have given up, pouting incessantly while blaming everybody but himself. Instead, in the ugly face of sure defeat, he kept fighting and hustling and playing through the 90th minute as if Italy still had a shot at European glory.

And as Italy watched Spain claim its champion medallions and hoist the Henri Delaunay Trophy in triumph, it was Balotelli overcome with emotion, tears welling in his eyes. It was a side the public has never seen from the man usually portrayed as a clown. It showed that he cared.

Looking back, it wasn’t Mario Balotelli’s tournament so much as because of his play but because it was where he finally matured.

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