Remembering when a teenage Mario Balotelli destroyed Juve for Inter
When Italy were unceremoniously dumped out of the 2022 World Cup in qualifying by North Macedonia, an entire nation mourned. Yet few could match the disappointment of Roberto Mancini’s mother.
In the immediate aftermath of the Azzurri’s shock 1-0 defeat, Marianna Puolo made headlines after suggesting her son had made one crucial error.
“We had the match in our hands but the attack wasn’t great,” she told Radiouno. “I would have called up [Mario] Balotelli because he has incredible physical strength and in front of the goal nobody can stop him.”
In truth, it was probably wishful thinking on Puolo’s part. Although Balotelli was called up to join the Azzurri on a three-day training camp back in January, his return to form at Adana Demirspor in Turkey was too little too late to force his way into Mancini’s plans.
Balotelli has shown himself to be the man for the big occasion plenty of times in the past – his brace against Germany at Euro 2012, the assist for Sergio Aguero against QPR and that brace against Manchester United.
But the truth was that ‘Super Mario’ had burned too many bridges in recent years with ill-advised moves and ill-mannered fallouts.
Still, few Italy fans would have begrudged him a Hollywood ending. After all, that was kind of how his football career began: like something out of a movie.
Balotelli’s background is well-documented; the son of Ghanaian parents born in Palermo, Mario Barwuah and his family later moved to Brescia where he was ultimately placed under the foster care of Silvia and Francesco Balotelli, eventually adopting their surname as his own.
What’s perhaps highlighted less, however, is just how much of a sensation Super Mario was from a scarily young age.
At 15, he was already turning out for the Lumezzane first team in Serie C1, becoming the youngest player to ever play in the third tier of Italian football after being granted an exemption to play by the Italian Football Federation.
This was a rise of Lionel Messi-like proportions. Little wonder then that Barcelona invited Balotelli for a trial. That might not have worked out, but he was soon moving on up, joining Inter Milan in the summer of 2006.
He continued to shine in the Nerazzurri youth ranks, helping the Inter Under-19 side to the Primavera title by scoring the decisive goal against Sampdoria in the final.
Balotelli would go on to finish top scorer at the 2008 Viareggio Tournament, bagging the decisive penalty for Inter in a shootout victory over Empoli in the final.
By then, he had already made an appearance for the senior side, aged just 17.
His debut came against Cagliari on December 16, 2007, while his first two goals for the club arrived against Reggina in the Coppa Italia just three days later.
But the game that saw Balotelli go from exciting prospect to bona fide star came a month later in a Coppa Italia quarter-final second-leg clash against hated rivals Juventus.
Nearly two years on from the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal that saw Juve demoted to Serie B for the first time in their history, the Old Lady was back, with Claudio Ranieri guiding the club back up at the first time of asking.
A fixture familiar to millions as the Derby d’Italia, this encounter had a little extra spice for many Juventus fans, with Inter the main beneficiaries of their demotion which also saw the 2005-06 Scudetto won by the Turin club handed to the Nerazzurri instead.
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The first leg set the tone, with the two teams playing out an entertaining 2-2 draw at the San Siro. Inter headed to Turin on January 30, 2008, knowing either victory or a high-scoring draw would be required to progress.
So when the news came through that Mancini would be leaving out Zlatan Ibrahimovic to play a largely unproven Balotelli in his place, fans were understandably concerned.
This, after all, was the peak of ‘Ibracadabra’, with the Sweden international often relied upon to dig an otherwise underwhelming Inter side out of a hole. The reality was, however, that even Ibrahimovic needed a break now and then and, in Balotelli, Mancini saw a kindred spirit.
Mancini knew all about being the golden boy of Italian football, having made his debut for Bologna aged 16, and was evidently of the opinion that age was just a number.
More importantly, Balotelli’s match-winning brace against Reggina in the previous round had seen the Italian youngster earn Mancini’s trust in a way other strikers at the club had failed to.
Hernan Crespo, back on loan from Chelsea, was in the midst of his worst season as a professional while Honduran striker David Suazo, a €10million acquisition from Cagliari, had failed to settle. So the teenager was picked to partner the consistently underrated target man Julio Cruz.
In truth, both teams featured their fair share of fringe players but it was clear Juventus still meant business with Alessandro Del Piero, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Pavel Nedved all starting.
It was Juve who started on the front foot too, with Ranieri evidently eager to press home their advantage rather than sit back and defend. What he hadn’t accounted for, however, was the presence of Balotelli.
Guglielmo Stendardo started for Juventus that night in the centre of defence and later recalled Balotelli being almost unplayable. “It was my debut with Juve, and the game was a delicate one,” he told GianlucaDiMarzio.com. “The quality of Balotelli, however, was evident from the very first minutes.”
Despite Juventus’ early dominance, it took Balotelli just 10 minutes to make his mark on the game with a sublime goal.
Latching on to a lofted long pass from Maniche on the left-hand side of the penalty area, Balotelli allowed the ball to bounce once before outmuscling experienced defender Alessandro Birindelli and firing right-footed past Emanuele Belardi in the Juventus goal.
A dizzying mix of strength, speed of thought and skill, Balotelli, wearing his now-familiar No.45 shirt, raised his arms aloft as if to say: ‘I have arrived.’
It was a goal that got better with every viewing; the way Balotelli shrugs off Birindelli, the perfect touch off the shoulder to take the pace off the ball and the way he is able to wrap his foot around it at a tricky height to send it past Belardi.
The game was far from over though, with Juventus taking back the initiative thanks to Del Piero who, despite being almost twice Balotelli’s age at 33, was still pulling the strings for the Bianconeri.
It took them just four minutes to draw level courtesy of a deflected Del Piero free-kick. By 31 minutes they were ahead with Vincenzo Iaquinta tapping home the rebound after Stendardo headed against the bar from another Del Piero dead ball.
By half-time, however, it was 2-2 with a Hasan Salihamidzic handball gifting Inter a penalty on 39 minutes which Cruz duly converted.
The turning point in the game and the tie came eight minutes into the second half and proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that Balotelli was the real deal.
Collecting a low pass played into the Juventus box at speed by Dejan Stankovic, Balotelli, with his back to goal and defender Nicola Legrottaglie breathing down his neck, flicked the ball up with his right foot, and controlled it on his left knee before swivelling and firing a rocket of a shot into the top corner.
It was Mauro Icardi who once famously said: “Scoring in the Derby d’Italia is always important and a source of great satisfaction.”
This, however, went beyond even that for Balotelli. Given the kind of opportunity every young player dreams of, he had delivered on the biggest stage of all against the most important opponents of all.
With half an hour to go, Juve now needed two goals to reverse the deficit. But they would not come, with Inter goalkeeper Francesco Toldo enjoying a night to remember. Eventually, frustrations boiled over and Mauro Camoranesi was sent off for a rash tackle late on.
Come the final whistle, however, all of the focus was on one man. In the space of 90 minutes, Balotelli had gone from a little-known 17-year-old with just one minute of Serie A playing time to his name to the next big thing in world football.
AC Milan, who had spent big on Alexandre Pato the previous summer, were suddenly looking over enviously at their arch-rivals.
Balotelli would continue to impress over the coming months too. A first Serie A goal against Atalanta followed in April, while he ended the campaign with seven goals in 15 games, including four in the Coppa Italia, making him the competition’s top scorer.
By November 2008, he was making history again as Inter’s youngest ever goalscorer in the Champions League. Many assumed Balotelli would go on to enjoy several more fruitful years at the San Siro.
Unfortunately, with Mancini sacked that summer despite winning the Scudetto, Balotelli found himself going up against the incoming Jose Mourinho – and there would only be one winner.
Branded a troublemaker who lacked application in training, Balotelli was moved on to Manchester City. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Balotelli is as much known for his eccentricities as anything he ever did for them on the pitch.
But for Inter fans, he’ll always be Super Mario, the 17-year-old who silenced the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino and who maybe, just maybe, will come back to save Italian football again one day.