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john doyle

Italy's Mario Balotelli celebrates his goal against Germany during their Euro 2012 semi-final soccer match at National Stadium in Warsaw.KAI PFAFFENBACH/Reuters

Spain is favoured to win Sunday's Euro2012 soccer final. One goal allowed so far. Spain amazes with its possession and hundreds of passes leading to a rare goal. Spain makes people crazy with its invincibility.

And yet, and yet…there is the Balotelli factor.

Italy's new god has become better as the tournament progressed. A maddening figure, nurtured by manager Cesare Prandelli to play as directed, he has become Italy's main threat. Add in a new compatibility with Antonio Cassano and, well, he's the figure that makes some people hesitate to name Spain as the outright favourite.

Mario Balotelli, for those who don't follow the ins and outs of European soccer, is an intriguing as he is maddening.

When Prandelli met the press the day after the semi-final victory over Germany, he was asked a loaded question. The query was whether he thought the "new Italian," the "immigrant Balotelli" is the new symbol of his Italy team. Prandelli was impatient and answered, "He is not the symbol, the Azzurri shirt is the symbol and don't call him an immigrant. He's an Italian."

The Balotelli story is well-known in Italy but less so outside. The 21-year-old has had a long, laden journey to this achievement and acclaim.

He was born in Palermo, Sicily, the child of migrant parents from Ghana, Thomas and Rose Barwuah, who soon moved to the Brescia area. A sickly child needing endless care and several operations, he was eventually adopted by the Balotelli family in Brescia in 1993 and brought up by them with the Balotelli's other two sons and one daughter.

He was, by all accounts, a nervous, frightened boy, sometimes the subject of racist abuse. Legend has it that for years he would not sleep at night unless his mother held his hand. He was also petulant and rebellious. According to his parents, one of his great, early teenage meltdowns was when his mother forbade him to leave the house after he had disobeyed her. That meant he would miss soccer practice. He snuck out and on arriving at practice was told his mother had already called and he was to return home directly.

Soccer saved him, yet made him more mercurial than ever. Playing for Inter Milan, and clearly a gifted striker, he got racist abuse from fans of other teams. Some Juventus supporters in particular loathed him because as a mere 17-year-old, he scored two goals to beat Juventus in 2008.

At another match against Juventus in 2009, such was the uproar over abuse aimed at him that the match was ordered to be replayed in an empty stadium. His celebrity and status as a lightning rod for controversy seemed to make him unreliable on the field. Inter manger Jose Mourinho, former Italy manager Marcello Lippi and his current boss, Manchester City coach Roberto Mancini, have despaired of him. He has been bewildering. The fits of anger, leading to red cards. The failure to pass the ball to others. The off-field antics, arguments with fellow players, fast cars and childish behaviour.

If he had another job, the wayward behaviour wouldn't matter so much. His background and the fraught journey to adulthood – the agreement under which he was fostered had to be studied and renewed by a court every two years, meaning he was always worried – would be the explanation and understood. But Balotelli does his work in the glare of intense international attention. And he's so gifted, so alert and agile as a striker that he commands the attention he also craves, but is unsure how to handle.

He dedicated his goals against Germany to his mother, Silvia, and embraced her long and hard afterward. She will be in Kiev for the final, along with her husband.

Maybe he'll shine. Maybe Spain knows how to make him invisible. But he has something to prove and has the stage to do it.