Euro 2012: Balotelli's hug for adoptive mother to whom he owes it all
The image of the night in Warsaw on Thursday was not Mario Balotelli ripping off his shirt and, despite his best efforts, failing to keep an ice-cool straight face after he scored the goal of the tournament to take Italy into the final of Euro 2012.
It came after the final whistle. And it involved Balotelli -- of course -- as he buried himself deep into the hug of his adoptive mother, Silvia, whose face was creased in emotion, whispering that the two goals he had scored to defeat Germany were dedicated to her.
Even then, there was a touch of the surreal as fans tried to get in on the act, wearing vivid wigs and hats with Balotelli-style Mohican haircuts.
In Rome, along the Piazza del Popolo, a driver changed the destination on the front of his bus to read simply 'Super Mario'. It has certainly been some ride. Peter Pan -- and Balotelli himself has wondered whether he is the boy who refuses to grow up -- was making a nation believe it could fly.
"Tonight was the most beautiful of my life," Balotelli said. It was a big statement given the life he has led.
There are so many stories, so many plot-lines, so much drama -- tragedy and surreal comedy -- surrounding this most precious, and precocious, of young men. But there is also Silvia, as well as Franco, his adoptive father who will now fly into Kiev, from his home outside Brescia, to attend the final.
To make sense of Balotelli, his background has to be understood. Everyone knows the stories around him -- the fireworks, the silly hat, the struggle to put on a bib, the parking tickets, prison and school visits, car crashes, red cards and training-ground fights, throwing darts at youth-team players, the 'Why Always Me?' T-shirt.
Yet there is also the huge degree of philanthropy, the campaigning against the use of child soldiers, the work Balotelli has done in Brazil to help destitute children and the women of the favelas and the strong interest he has in the World Wildlife Fund.
Despite that, Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini stated last season -- in jest but with a point -- that he should move Balotelli into his home and lock him in the cellar to keep him out of trouble.
After Balotelli's petulant red card against Arsenal, Mancini suggested he had washed his hands of the striker, while Italy coach Cesare Prandelli had grave misgivings about including the player in his Euro squad. If Giuseppe Rossi had been fit, Balotelli may not have been here.
Maybe it is the presence of the diminutive Silvia that is making the difference. Watching the pair embrace in Poland's National Stadium brought to mind a story told by Cristina, one of the Balotellis' three natural children and another big influence on Mario's life.
She recalled how Mario was once stopped from going to training because of bad behaviour at home. He escaped and made the journey on foot, only for the coach to tell him when he finally arrived that his mother had called and he was to be sent straight back home.
They even joke at City that things might be a little easier with Balotelli if Silvia could be persuaded to move to Manchester.
It is obvious to see why she is such an influence. Balotelli was one of four children, two boys, two girls, born into a Ghanaian immigrant family in Palermo in 1990.
Inevitably, the Barwuahs -- his original family name -- came to the attention of the social services after moving to Brescia and they pleaded to be moved out of their cramped studio flat to nurse Mario, who was suffering serious health problems with his intestines.
It was eventually suggested that he should be fostered, and the Balotellis -- whose own three children were growing up -- were persuaded to take care of the child, who was only two and a half but had already undergone a number of operations.
The striker's biological parents have since complained about being frozen out of his life, while he has argued that they showed little interest in him for years.
Franco Balotelli had already retired from his job as a warehouse supervisor, and Silvia, a nurse and a regular foster mother, agreed to take Mario in.
The court decree under which Mario was fostered was renewed every two years until he was 18, which did not help the sense of permanency which the Balotellis were trying to create for him.
He was also the only black kid in a white neighbourhood, and he encountered racism early in his life.
Inevitably, Balotelli grew up craving attention. He never wanted to be left alone, always wanted company. For years he could go to sleep only if Silvia held his hand.
It does not need a psychologist to explain much of Balotelli's extrovert behaviour. While his talent was quickly obvious, his sporting life has been a whirl of headlines, fallouts and a threat to be one of Europe's best strikers. Jose Mourinho publicly sidelined him and Mancini has veered between indulgence and despair.
But he has already won titles with Inter Milan and -- after a big-money move -- Manchester City.
Unusually, Balotelli's words were modest after Thursday's triumph. He talked of how "amazing" it would be to score in the final, how happy he was and what a "special year" he had been through.
As he spoke, he wore beneath his shirt a gold medallion that Silvia gave to him a few years ago. It bears the inscription: "Professionalism, Endeavour, Humility."
They are words he may not have always have lived up to, despite his astonishing achievements, but it is not for the want of Silvia trying. She will be there tomorrow night, too. (© Daily Telegraph, London)