SAO PAULO – Fans of England's national team have devised a bizarre tactic to unsettle unpredictable Italy forward Mario Balotelli when the two teams meet in Manaus in their first game of the World Cup on Saturday.
Instead of hurling abuse at or booing Balotelli as soccer fans usually do, a section of England supporters are planning to shower the 23-year-old from AC Milan with rapturous cheers and applause every time he touches the ball.
The idea stems from a ploy used by fans of Italian Serie A club Hellas Verona. They figured that a player as used to controversy as Balotelli would actually enjoy being given the usual jibes and banter, so they cheered him like one of their own favorites at a game last season.
It may have had the desired effect, as Verona won the game 2-1 despite being a heavy underdog. Now, some England fans have picked up the idea.
"We started hearing about it from other England fans a while ago, quite a few months before we came to Brazil," said James Richardson, a 26-year-old England supporter from Manchester.
"We will have a group all sitting together who are going to give Balotelli the cheering and clapping treatment. Who knows, it might work to unsettle him a little bit and give us a little edge. We've met some other groups of lads who are going to start it up in another part of the stadium. The aim is to get all the England fans doing it."
Balotelli is an explosive character who was rarely far from the headlines during his time in England with Manchester City before returning to Italy with Milan a year ago. Some of the tales about him in soccer gossip and the press were false, though. For instance, he didn't gift $3,000 in cash to a homeless man or go to a school to confront a bully. Some stories were exaggerated, such as the one in which part of his house caught fire after a firework flew in the wrong direction.
Balotelli is considered to one of the main threats for Italy in what will be a crucial Group D match-up against the English. His wild ways may have quieted a little since returning to Italy and he recently proposed to girlfriend Fanny Neguesha.
However, Balotelli is still erratic at times on the field. He is a player who could be brilliant one moment and self-destructive the next, prompting England goalkeeper Joe Hart to tell the BBC that "you just never know with him."
"Mario is an unpredictable player," England defender Gary Cahill said. "I have played against him when he has done well. I have played against when he has been brought off after 60 minutes. It is difficult to say."
On Saturday, Balotelli will be a man for the England team to guard closely, for neutral viewers to watch and enjoy and for all the England fans, perhaps, to give a rousing ovation.