In the frantic, frenetic career of Mario Balotelli, Euro 2012 was the high point.
Having just helped Manchester City to the most dramatic of Premier League titles – providing his only assist for the club to set up "Aguerooooo" – he was the outstanding forward in Poland and Ukraine.
At the tournament, he super-charged an Italian side which had flopped at the World Cup two years earlier as reigning champions. They outplayed new world kings Spain in the opening group match, before beating Croatia and Republic of Ireland to reach the knock-outs.
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After beating England on penalties having totally outplayed the Three Lions in the quarter-finals, Italy faced Germany in the semis, where Balotelli truly came alive. He scored twice in the first half of a 2-1 win, Germany's goal being a last-minute consolation penalty.
The second goal was one of his most iconic. Riccardo Montolivo lofted a simple ball over the sluggish German defence, and Balotelli, confidence visibly surging through him, took a touch and slammed the ball past Manuel Neuer. He ripped off his shirt in celebration and glared at all around him. This was his stage, and he had performed.
"This was the greatest night of my life and I hope Sunday will be better," Balotelli said afterwards.
"At the end of the game, I went to my mother – that was the best moment. I told her these goals were for her. I waited a long time for this moment, especially as my mother is not young anymore and can't travel far, so I had to make her happy when she came all the way here. My father will be in Kiev for the final too."
Sunday was not better. Spain had ominously improved, and crushed Italy 4-0 in the final. For Balotelli, it was largely downhill from there.
Fast-forward eight and a half years, and Balotelli was joining Serie B side Monza in December 2020. He had been without a club since leaving Brescia in July, having repeatedly failed to turn up to training as they were relegated from Serie A.
His travails at Inter, Manchester City, AC Milan and Liverpool – among others – are well documented, from fireworks in the bathroom to scoring deliberate own goals in training. He had been training with Serie D club Franciacorta when Monza came calling.
Balotelli penned a contract until the end of the season, with an option to extend if Monza earned promotion to the top flight for the first time in their 109-year history. It was the ninth club of his career.
Signing with ambitious Monza, Balotelli was reunited with former AC Milan president Silvio Berlusconi and CEO Adriano Galliani, now in charge at a club from a city far more associated with motor racing than football.
Galliani claimed Balotelli turned down a lucrative move to Vasco da Gama in Brazil, and agent Mino Raiola took no commission.
The forward joined Monza when they were eighth in Serie B after nine matches, nine points off leaders Salernitana, but he was confident.
“I thank the president Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani for this opportunity," he said. "I will do everything to help Monza reach Serie A."
Galliani, meanwhile, made no bones about where Balotelli was in his career, and in being thrown a life-raft by his former friends.
He told Gazzetta dello Sport: “I gave him a proper talking to, and told him this is truly the last, absolutely last, completely the last chance.
“I do love Mario, he’s a player with the kind of technical and physical qualities that should’ve allowed him do so much more with his career. There were flashes of exceptional quality and I can’t understand why he can’t get even better. After all, he is only 30 years old.”
"Balotelli can be fundamental for Monza," Raiola said. "His potential is undisputed but he is behind in his preparations and we will do everything we can to get him in top condition."
Such pressure seemed primed to cause another Balotelli explosion, but he started extremely well, scoring four minutes into his debut in a 3-0 win over league leaders Salernitana. He turned in Carlos Augusto's cross with the first shot of the match and his first touch for his new team.
Eventually, Monza finished third in Serie B, and entered the play-offs as they aimed for back-to-back promotions. However, they exited to Cittadella 3-2 on aggregate, unable to overturn a 3-0 first-leg deficit in the second match.
In his half-season, Balotelli scored six goals and claimed one assist in 14 games for Monza, a very respectable return. His future is uncertain, but exhibited proof there is still talent and hope.
Off the pitch, Balotelli reportedly took a major pay cut from previous clubs, lost weight and agreed to move close to Monza to fit in with the team. He is close with Kevin-Prince Boateng, the pair regularly featuring in pictures on each others' social media. He also made a good impression with his other team-mates.
Fellow Monza striker Christian Gytkjaer told The Sportsman in March: “We've created a great squad. Growing up, you want to achieve things and play with great players and for sure Boateng is one of them, he’s had a big career. Balotelli is another one.
"I know there's been a lot of stories and stuff before but he's just a funny, happy guy. I have nothing bad to say about him, he’s just a good kid and a great guy to have around the dressing room.
"The quality and experience these guys bring is helpful and brings us forward. Everyone is doing their part and I think we have a great future.”
History suggests controversy and disarray will never be far away from Balotelli, but maybe this half-season in Italy's second-tier shows there is still some of that fire that burned with sulphuric brightness in Warsaw, back in Euro 2012.
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