FLORENCE, Italy — Italy and AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli says he owes his increased popularity in Italy to the national team.
Balotelli left Italy under a cloud in 2010 following a turbulent time at Inter Milan. However, he established himself as a key player in the national side during last summer’s European Championship, notably by scoring both goals in the 2-1 semifinal victory over Germany.
"Many people like me, but not everybody," Balotelli said on Sunday ahead of Italy’s World Cup qualifier against Malta. "After Euro 2012 I noted that my popularity increased. Thanks to the Italy squad, now fans of other clubs are starting to like me too. I can see from the way they act around me.
"The Nazionale has something special, something more. I can’t explain it, it’s above all else."
Not all fans are happy with Balotelli, however, and the forward was subject to racist abuse from his former fans in the Milan derby last month.
"Racism makes me annoyed, angry and disappointed," Balotelli said. "Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be enough improvement in this area here.
"I agree with Kevin Prince Boateng, to escape from racism we all have to contribute together."
Balotelli scored a stunning goal on Thursday as Italy came from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Brazil in a friendly.
The strike took Balotelli's tally to eight goals in eight games for club and country since his transfer from Manchester City in January.
"I've never had a big head," Balotelli said. "I do not consider myself to be the best in the world, nor the worst. I am me.
"I have been changing for a while, it's just that before you couldn't see the improvements. I've matured, I'm growing. I'm not 17 anymore, with experience you grow."
Balotelli will be looking to add to his tally in Malta on Tuesday.
Italy tops its World Cup qualifying group with 10 points from four games. Bulgaria is second with six.
"I spoke to my father after the Brazil draw and he told me off because I missed so many goals," Balotelli said. "Now a big game awaits us in Malta and we want to do well because that game will mean a lot for our World Cup qualifying."
Balotelli has never been far from the headlines, both on and off the pitch. However, the 22-year-old said he has just one regret.
"In my life I would only avoid doing one thing again: I wouldn't have thrown the Inter jersey to the ground," Balotelli said.
That incident occurred during a Champions League semifinal victory against Barcelona and caused public outrage among his Inter teammates and staff.
He was sold to Manchester City shortly afterward.