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Balotelli succeeds Cassano as Lippi’s torment
Cassano’s supporters have been silenced by his recent form and injury problems, along with the frosty relations with club coach Luigi Del Neri that suggest he may not have subdued the temperament issues that dogged him in the past — the apparent reason Lippi consistently overlooked him.
Lippi knew all along that the Italian media needs at least one outcast to champion in the traditional of epic pre-tournament furores such as the campaign for Roberto Baggio to be called up by Giovanni Trapattoni before the 2002 World Cup. “Bring on the torments,” he said while the Cassano controversy was raging.
But this time even Lippi’s boss, Italian Football Federation president Giancarlo Abete, has spoken in favour of having Balotelli bumped up from the Italy under-21 team.
“Balotelli is mature and Lippi can count on him, although it’s up to him to decide,” Abete told Sky television on Thursday, the day after Balotelli helped the under-21 team beat Hungary 2-0 while the seniors were held 0-0 by Cameroon.
Earlier this season some journalists lobbied for Balotelli, who is of Ghanaian decent, to be called up by Lippi as a response to the racist taunts he has frequently faced at Serie A stadiums.
This time, however, the campaign is based purely on his strong form for Inter, with him showing technical ability and a physical presence that arguably make him Italy’s most complete striker.
As with Cassano though, Lippi’s reluctance to call him up seems to be linked to doubts about his character. Inter boss Jose Mourinho has frequently complained about his attitude and he can be surly, although this is perhaps not surprising given the abuse he gets.
Balotelli also has some factors in his favour though and was confident enough this week to bet a TV presenter three dinners out that he would be in South Africa in June.
For example, Italy frequently lacked the creative thrust he can provide during the qualifying campaign and several of his rivals for the attacking slots in the World Cup squad have been having injury problems of late.
He has also shown devotion to Italian national team, recently knocking back Ghana’s offer to play at the World Cup with them. This is something Lippi, who often touts the importance of players’ attachment to the Azzurri shirt, will no doubt have appreciated.
Nevertheless, his chances of being part of Italy’s world title defence do not look great at the moment, with Lippi insisting he will not be bowed by the pressure.
“The media (organs) are like political parties, each have their own candidates,” he said this week. “But I’m sticking to my ideas.”
PHOTO: Inter Milan’s Mario Balotelli celebrates after scoring a second goal against Juventus during their Italian Cup soccer match at the San Siro stadium in Milan January 28, 2010. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo.