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Balotelli return to Italy fray gets mixed reviews

Mario Balotelli's return to the Italy fray was met with mixed reviews as the misfiring Liverpool striker prepares to end his enforced exile with a potential appearance against Euro 2016 opponents Croatia next week.

Balotelli return to Italy fray gets mixed reviews
Mario Balotelli's return to the Italy squad has been met with mixed reviews. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP

Balotelli has not played for Italy since their first-round exit from the World Cup in Brazil and until his call-up on Sunday was left on the sidelines by new Italy coach Antonio Conte for their first three Group H qualifiers.

The 24-year-old striker is no stranger to controversy, having spent two and a half well-documented years in the English Premier League with Manchester City, where he missed 11 domestic games after taking the club to a tribunal following their decision to fine him two weeks' wages for his poor disciplinary record.

After returning to Italy in January 2013 for an ill-fated 18-month spell with AC Milan, Balotelli signed for Liverpool in the summer but has been pilloried since having failed to spark and, worse, failed to score in the league.

Conte's decision has left more than a few observers scratching their heads in wonder.

"Balotelli was only called up by Italy because of the injury suffered by Lorenzo Insigne," claimed Francesco De Luca, chief editor of Il Mattino newspaper, on the football talk show Il Processo di Lunedi.

Another guest on the show, former Inter player Evaristo Beccalossi, gave an equally unflattering appraisal of Balotelli, who played for the Nerazzurri before his move to City.

"We've always said that Mario's presence should depend on how he is playing, but it's evident that at Liverpool he's not performing well," said Beccalossi.

"He's found it difficult from the start there, but Conte has selected him. In the coach's defence, you have to say the strikers we have are not all top notch."

Whether on or off the field, Balotelli has courted controversy at almost every club he has played.

Reports from England on Tuesday said Balotelli was seen out partying at a London nightclub until 4:30a.m. following Liverpool's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea, a game in which Balotelli was conspicuously under par.

Several weeks ago he was pilloried by fans and the unforgiving British tabloids after he swapped shirts with Real Madrid player Pepe as they walked off at half-time. Liverpool lost 3-0 and Balotelli was replaced at half-time.

While Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said he would "deal with the incident internally", former Reds great Jamie Carragher hit out: "I'd be surprised to see him here next season if I'm being honest."

Asked by Rai Sport on Monday for his opinion on Balotelli, former Ajax and Barcelona hero Johan Cruyff said: "It's a problem of education, if he had been educated well he would not be like he is now."

Few commentators got behind Balotelli, although in Tuttomercatoweb.com former Milan and Rangers striker Mark Hateley called for Liverpool fans to show patience.

"Conte was right to call him up because at international level you get the best out of Balotelli," said Hateley.

"Mario is suffering from the fact he is being compared to Luis Suarez and I think that's wrong. Suarez scored a lot of goals and was driving force behind Liverpool and you can't replace a guy like that.

"Of course, he (Balotelli) isn't scoring, he's not playing well. But Liverpool are not playing well and it's not easy for Balotelli.

"He's lacking confidence and maybe this call-up will be the spark that gets him going again."

Conte, meanwhile, said he has not taken Balotelli's Liverpool woes into consideration.

"Personally, I don't pay attention to what's being said about his club situation," Conte said on Monday when the Italy squad congregated at their Coverciano training base near Florence.

"Today he's here and he has to answer to me. I will judge him by what he does in the next seven to nine days."

Italy sit second in Group H behind Croatia on goal difference after winning their three opening qualifiers. They host the Croats at Milan's San Siro ground on Sunday.

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FOOTBALL

Euro 2020: Concern about virus spread after Italy players’ ‘unauthorised’ victory parade through Rome

Italy’s national football team reportedly insisted on taking an open-top bus tour through Rome to show off their European Championship trophy to crowds of fans - despite city authorities forbidding it amid concern about the spread of coronavirus.

Euro 2020: Concern about virus spread after Italy players' ‘unauthorised’ victory parade through Rome
Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The team’s bus parade through the city on Monday night following their Euro 2020 triumph “was not authorised”, according to Matteo Piantedosi the head of Rome’s prefettura (the public safety authority).

Thousands of fans packed the streets of central Rome to see the team celebrate their cup win after beating England on penalties in the final.

READ ALSO: ‘Football came home’: Italy celebrates Euro 2020 victory over England

Piantedosi told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Wednesday: “We had denied permission to celebrate Italy’s victory in the European Championships on the open bus, but the pact was not respected.”

Piantedosi, who is Rome’s top public security official, said police had “no choice” but to let the parade go ahead after players Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci insisted on it.

Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

A meeting had been held on Friday with the Italian football federation (FIGC) to discuss plans for the celebrations if Italy won, said Piantedosi.

“I had agreed the line with Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese and Chief of Police Lamberto Giannini,” he said.

“It was clearly explained that [the parade] was not possible. We said we could not authorize it.”

Piantedosi said the Italian football federation (FIGC) initially agreed to hold a “controlled” ceremony in Rome’s central Piazza del Popolo instead of the parade.

After players insisted on the bus tour on Monday however, Piantedosi said, authorities reluctantly let them go ahead due to fears of sparking public disorder.

“At that point we had no choice but to acknowledge the situation and handle it in the best way we could,” he said.

READ ALSO: Covid cases on the rise in Europe once again as WHO warns of Euro 2020 risk

Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

In a statement on Wednesday, the FIGC said it had acted responsibly but decided not to disappoint fans who had come to celebrate with the team.

Footage of large crowds thronging the bus carrying the ‘Azzurri’ and the European Championship trophy through the capital however fuelled concerns about new outbreaks of coronavirus, after Italy’s infection rate began to rise again last week.

The World Health Organization warned earlier this month that crowds and gatherings connected to football matches will fuel a new rise in cases across Europe this summer.

READ ALSO: Delta variant in Italy will be ‘prevalent within 10 days’: health official

Italy’s health minister Roberto Speranza also voiced concerns on Monday about the consequences of people gathering to watch sporting events.

He said the European football championship win was “a great joy after terrible months,” but “even in these moments of national pride we can’t forget that our ‘game’ to defeat Covid is not yet won.”

There are currently minimal health restrictions in place across Italy, however masks are supposed to be worn in crowded public places, including outdoors.

“Footage shows that police were virtually the only ones [in the crowd] wearing masks,” said Piantedosi.

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