AP Sports Columnist
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - He put Italy in the European Championship final. He shamed the morons who have been making monkey noises at him because he is black. And he salvaged the honor of Europe's strikers, by making sure these Euros didn't set a new record for goal-scoring sterility. In short, self-proclaimed genius Mario Balotelli had an outstanding night to finally match his nickname, Super Mario.
Euro 2012 had gone 260 minutes of football without a goal _ with 0-0 draws in two consecutive matches that went into extra time _ before the Italian striker thumped his header past German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, the first of two goals he scored in Thursday's semifinal to put the Azzurri into their first European Championship final since 2000.
The longest stretch without a goal at the Euros was in 1996, according to tournament organizers UEFA. Vladimir Smicer scored for the Czech Republic in the 88th minute against Russia. The tournament then waited 262 minutes _ through 0-0 quarterfinal draws between France and Netherlands and England vs. Spain _ before Juergen Klinsmann ended the drought with a penalty for Germany against Croatia in the 20th minute of their quarterfinal at Old Trafford.
When Balotelli scored Thursday night in the 20th minute, wriggling free of marker Holger Badstuber to head home Antonio Cassano's cross, these Euros were within a hair's breadth of setting a new goal-drought record. Balotelli spared a few blushes of embarrassment for Europe's current crop of strikers, the big men like him that teams look to for goals but who have been somewhat out-of-sorts at this tournament.
There have been plenty of goals _ 72 in total, including the two by Balotelli in Italy's 2-1 semifinal defeat of Germany, a squad packed with talent that is slowly earning an unwanted reputation as chokers after their losses here, at the 2010 World Cup semifinals and the 2008 European Championship final, where they fell to Spain.
But many Euro 2012 goals haven't been scored by the players one might expect, the star forwards like Balotelli.
Mario Gomez, the German striker with three goals at Euro 2012, had a shocking night against Italy, and was pulled off by coach Joachim Loew at halftime.
Cristiano Ronaldo was impressive for Portugal in the quarterfinal against the Czech Republic and in the group stage against the Netherlands, finding the net three times. But his scoring touch deserted him in the semifinal against defending champions Spain, one of the matches that had to be decided on penalties after 120 minutes with extra time finished 0-0. The other was Italy's quarterfinal with England.
France's Karim Benzema, prolific alongside Ronaldo at Real Madrid, never got off the mark at Euro 2012. Neither did Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. And his Netherlands teammate, Premier League top scorer Robin van Persie, went home with just one goal. England's Wayne Rooney was a flop, too. Even Balotelli has been erratic here. Against Spain in Italy's first match, he was one-on-one against Iker Casillas but then slowed almost to a stop, allowing defender Sergio Ramos to tackle him before he could shoot past the Spanish `keeper and captain.
Balotelli said in a magazine interview before Euro 2012 that scoring is a question of willpower.
"When I decide to score, I will score," he told France Football. That was the same interview where he declared, "Yes, I think I am a genius."
There was certainly a touch of genius in both Italian goals on Thursday at the National Stadium in Warsaw. For the first, Andrea Pirlo delivered one of the laser-like passes he is famous for from deep in the Italian half, Giorgio Chiellini chested it down on the Italian left wing and passed to Cassano, who then wriggled past two German defenders to deliver the pass that Balotelli jumped for and sent goalward with his shaved head that is decorated with a thin Mohican-style strip of hair down the middle.
For the second, Balotelli took a long pass from Riccardo Montolivo, chested it down, knocked it forward and then hammered the ball before Philipp Lahm could tackle him. Neuer could only watch, rooted to the spot, as Balotelli's right-footed strike curved past into his net. Mesut Oezil scored Germany's goal, from a penalty.
Balotelli doesn't like to celebrate his goals. He reasons that since scoring is his job, there's nothing to get excited about when he does it.
But he celebrated this time, shaking his blue shirt with fury after his first goal and then ripping it off after his second and clenching his muscular arms and torso like a bodybuilder. For that, the referee gave Balotelli a yellow card.
Balotelli also scored with a superb strike against Ireland. He now has a total of three goals, the highest total of any player still at Euro 2012.
Super Mario, indeed.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)