By ANDREW DAMPF
2014-06-17 03:42 AM
MANGARATIBA, Brazil (AP) -- Mario Balotelli is making the most of his first World Cup.
The mercurial Italy forward proposed to his Belgian girlfriend last week, scored the winning goal in the Azzurri's opening game against England and has won over fans both at the stadium and on social media.
"I'm not surprised, because Balotelli was fundamental at the 2012 European Championship," Italian football federation president Giancarlo Abete said Monday. "He's a player with a huge amount of talent and it seems like he's setting himself up to have a great World Cup."
Balotelli took advantage of coach Cesare Prandelli's policy to allow wives and girlfriends into Italy's training camp by popping the marriage question to Fanny Neguesha on a moon-lit beach at the Portobello Resort & Safari where the Azzurri are based.
Ever since, Balotelli has appeared smiling and focused -- whether when receiving congratulations from teammates or finding the target against England with a precise header.
"We hope it helps him during the entire World Cup," Abete said of the marriage plans.
This is clearly a different "Super Mario" from the one seen with AC Milan just a couple of months ago. Or the player who made more headlines off the pitch than on it during his 2 1/2-season spell with Manchester City.
In April, Balotelli appeared to reach a boiling point when he stormed off the pitch after getting substituted during Milan's 2-0 loss to Roma. After that match, he had a tense exchange with the Sky Italia TV studio hosts.
"When Milan wins Mario is great, when it loses Mario is bad," he said.
Told by one studio host that he doesn't move enough on the pitch, Balotelli responded: "You don't know anything about football. Trust me."
His comments provoked plenty of reaction -- both supportive and critical -- which Balotelli addressed by tweeting: "Mamma mia I divide Italy in 2! Wow!"
His stay with City is remembered most for when he made light of his troubles by unveiling a T-shirt with the slogan "Why Always Me?" during a 6-1 rout of Manchester United in a 2011 Premier League derby.
That came after reports that a fire had broken out at his house when fireworks were let off in his bathroom. And Balotelli escaped punishment earlier in 2011 after throwing a dart at a City youth-squad member. Back in Italy, Balotelli has been questioned in court for spending time in a Naples neighborhood infested by the Camorra crime group.
But with Italy, Balotelli has always been at his best.
He scored both goals when the Azzurri beat Germany 2-1 in the semifinals of Euro 2012 and then converted the decisive penalty when Italy qualified for the World Cup in September with a 2-1 win over the Czech Republic.
"Balotelli has always done well with the national team. He's always behaved appropriately," Abete said. "We remember how fundamental he was at the European Championship and what his brace meant in the semifinal.
"We all expect a lot from him, because everyone is convinced that he has even more potential than what he has showed so far," Abete added. "He has huge potential and we haven't seen all of it yet."
Prandelli shares the same view and perhaps nobody has had a greater effect on Balotelli than the current Italy coach, who handed the player his first international appearance weeks after the 2010 World Cup.
Former Italy coach Marcello Lippi ignored pressure to call Balotelli up for the 2010 tournament, even though Balotelli helped Inter Milan to the Champions League title that year. The title-holders were then eliminated after the first round in South Africa.
Four years later, Balotelli is Italy's star attraction. Born to Ghanaian immigrants in Sicily and brought up by an Italian foster family, he's also the symbol of Italy's new multi-ethnic generation.
Often subjected to racist chants back home, Balotelli's reception couldn't be more different in Brazil. He was already a fan favorite during last year's Confederations Cup when he supported a charity project for one of Salvador's largest slums and tweeted, "I look like a person from Bahia!!!"
And when he was replaced midway through the second half against England, nearly the entire crowd in Manaus showered him with a long applause.
Later that night, Balotelli shared a photo of him blowing a kiss to the crowd with his 2.31 million followers on Twitter.
"For all those ones that always support me, (believe) in me, and understand me. This is for you all!" he wrote. "Thank you. And now lets keep (believing) in it cause we didn't even started yet."
Andrew Dampf can be followed at www.twitter.com/asdampf