As fans waved flags and honked horns in piazzas up and down the country after Italy beat Germany 2-1 to book their place in today's final against Spain, Balotelli dedicated the victory to his adoptive mother Silvia, who raised him from the age of two after he was born to Ghanaian immigrants.
"I waited for this moment for so long and I wanted to make my mum happy," said the 21-year-old, who had made a habit of refusing to celebrate goals. "Tonight was the most beautiful of my life."
His gushing tribute to mamma was enough, according to Italian daily Corriere della Sera, to make Super Mario "more Italian than ever", a final rebuke to Juventus fans who hung a banner reading "a negro cannot be Italian" from the stands when Balotelli first made his mark at Milan club Internazionale.
For one football commentator, Balotelli's two goals will also guarantee him a place among Italy's footballing greats. "Until now, he has been the most controversial, talked about and, in part, detested national team player," says Sandro Modeo, who covers football for Corriere della Sera. "His goals against Germany changed all that; it was the break which makes him a champion."
Before Thursday, Italians had never really fallen for the 6ft 2in forward. Even colour-blind Italians have long been irked by his apparent cocktail of insolence and arrogance, which combined to get him kicked off a youth team side as early as the age of seven.
"By the time he was 11, he was saying he would be the first black man to play for Italy," recalls Ezio Chinelli, chairman of lower league side Lumezzane, where Balotelli was a youth player from nine to 16.
When he arrived at Inter, coach José Mourinho dropped Balotelli after he showed a lack of effort in training, claiming: "I can't accept that from someone who is still a nobody."
Nor has Balotelli won any popularity contests with his national team-mates this summer, often staying on the fringes of the group listening to rap music on his headphones. After his first goal against Germany, playmaker Andrea Pirlo ran to Antonio Cassano, who set up the goal, to celebrate, snubbing Balotelli.
Forced to accept a substitute's role in Italy's group game against Ireland, Balotelli came on to score a phenomenal volley before appearing to let fly with a barrage of insults aimed at the Italy bench, prompting team-mate Leonardo Bonucci to clamp a hand over his mouth. Explaining why he turns and walks away sullenly after scoring, Balotelli reportedly said: "I don't celebrate because I'm only doing my job. When a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?"
"Italians are less tolerant of his eccentricities because they believe that becoming an adult and becoming a great champion are part of the same process," says Modeo. By contrast, since joining Manchester City, Balotelli's behaviour has been welcomed in England, where eccentricity is often seen as a prerequisite for true talent. "Mario lives life on the edge, so people like you don't have to," Noel Gallagher, Manchester City's rock star fan, has said.
Cue Balotelli's tabloid-friendly stream of escapades in Manchester, from setting his house on fire with fireworks and writing off his car to handing out wads of cash to tramps. Less amusing was his disciplinary record at City, which undermined the team as it wobbled en route to winning this season's Premier League title. If Roberto Mancini's team had not won the title at the death with a last-gasp victory against QPR, Balotelli's wayward nature might have been less easily forgiven.
As his misdemeanours piled up and pundits queued to offer an insight into Balotelli's mind, the player offered no clues, revealing a T-shirt after scoring against Manchester Utd bearing the message: "Why always me?" When pushed, he has described himself as: "A good person. Educated. Impulsive, too impulsive."
Italian manager Cesare Prandelli said figuring out what made Balotelli tick was beyond him. "How do you try to work out what goes on in the head of such a young man?" he asked.
One way to figure out Balotelli is to start with his adoption by the woman he hugged so fiercely in the stands on Thursday night. Suffering from a chronic intestinal condition as a baby, Balotelli was given up for adoption by his Ghanaian parents, who could not support him. After spending two years in hospital in Brescia in northern Italy, he was reared by the Balotellis, a local family.
On the long drives between trials with local clubs, Silvia would accompany Mario to make sure he studied. "Mario always needed love and affection," his adoptive sister, Cristina, has said. "He wouldn't go to sleep without his mother holding his hand." That did not stop Balotelli misbehaving and he was often yelled at by his adoptive family, says Chinelli.
According to an Italian psychologist who specialises in helping adopted children, Balotelli's errant behaviour has a very simple explanation. "We see this a lot," says Alessandra Tongiorgi. "Adopted children have, by definition, been abandoned, which means they are wounded and need to convince themselves that the new family adopting them will not abandon them again. So they put them to the test." Balotelli's urge to test his family's unconditional devotion to him could now be shaping his relationship with Italy's millions of football fans, she suggests. "It is possible his behaviour right now, with his manager and fans, is a continuation of this."
Prandelli appeared to be thinking along the same lines when he said: "The day (Balotelli) understands that no one wants to hurt him, but rather that everyone is helping him, then we will have, in Italy, a champion." Ahead of his goals against Germany, Prandelli continued to pick Balotelli, even after he wasted chances in the group games, freezing mysteriously in front of the goal in Italy's opener against Spain.
With Italian fans, Balotelli's relationship has been more fraught. If, as Tongiorgi suggests, he harbours instinctive suspicions they could abandon him, he is not far off the mark, as intolerance bubbles under the surface.
"Italians like to back a winner, and if Balotelli messes up in the final things could all change," said Modeo.
During Italy's quarter-final game against England, a group of shirtless young Italians watching a big screen in Rome's Piazza San Silvestro shouted out "Balotelli eats bananas," every time he missed a chance.
"I watched the Germany game in a pizzeria in Ferrara where an old Sicilian said, 'Look at the monkey' when Balotelli got the ball," says Robert Elliott, who works for a watchdog monitoring racism in the Italian media. "I was shocked."
The Italian game currently resembles English football in the 1970s and 80s, when black players first broke into the England team and John Barnes was greeted with bananas and monkey noises when he played at some grounds.
As Balotelli hogged the headlines, Italy's sports dailies showed their grasp of racial sensitivity was adrift somewhere in the last century.
La Gazzetta dello Sport published a cartoon depicting Balotelli as King Kong, before Tuttosport ran a headline next to a photo of Balotelli stating "Li abbiamo fatti neri", a phrase which means "We have pummelled them" but was a pun on its literal meaning: "We have made them black".
If Balotelli can rise above niggling racism, he can inspire Italy's half million children of immigrants who were born in Italy, but who, like Balotelli, only qualify for an Italian passport when they are 18 under Italian law.
"Balotelli is creating waves in Italy," says Elliott. "He really represents something for Italy's first multi-ethnic generation."
After he scored his first goal in Warsaw on Thursday in front of his mother, Balotelli clutched at his Italy jersey in a patriotic gesture. Then he did something he rarely does after scoring – he smiled.
After the game, he issued a warning to Spain, Italy's opponents on Sunday. "My father's coming for the final – I hope to score four."
In Italy on Friday, images of the black player embracing his white mother dominated websites and papers. One newspaper, Il Giornale, decided that no one could claim to be more Italian than Mario.
"A loudmouth and a mother's boy, sweet but angry, a child in a hurry to grow and an adult still anchored to adolescence," it stated. "Half bully and half tender, Mario Balotelli represents the prototype Italian."
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