By Terry Daley
ROME (Reuters) - Italy qualified for next year's World Cup with two games to spare on Tuesday but almost inevitably it was volatile striker Mario Balotelli who grabbed the headlines.
Balotelli missed a host of easy chances in Italy's 2-1 win over Czech Republic in Turin and could easily have been sent off, although he did slot home the winning penalty.
Those misses and a rash challenge on Tomas Sivok capped a first half to forget, with some among the Juventus Stadium crowd whistling the forward in exasperation at his antics.
"I was trying to get the ball and didn't even see the player, so for me it wasn't even a yellow," Balotelli said. "I hit him but I didn't do it on purpose."
He even risked a second yellow after reacting to a foul in the second half, and it was only the measured actions of referee Jonas Eriksson that stopped him getting into another unnecessary confrontation.
"At times you react because they go too far, at other times you manage to control yourself. You always try to control yourself, but it's not easy when you're out on the pitch."
Balotelli had missed Italy's nervy 1-0 win over Bulgaria on Friday after being sent off in the reverse fixture with the Czechs in June and has frequently been warned that he will be a target for provocation.
As Italy's most prominent black player, he has been the subject of intense media focus and frequent bouts of racist abuse from opposition fans, who use his outlandish behaviour as an excuse for chants such as "there are no black Italians".
Monkey chants have also been an increasing feature in Italian stadiums.
In a country struggling with deep economic problems, immigrants and minority groups are being targeted, and many want to see Balotelli act as an ambassador for non-white Italians, and see him as to blame for the insults.
He attracted negative headlines again this week when he missed a meeting with Cecile Kyenge, Italy's Congolese-born Minister of Integration who has been the target of racist abuse by Italy's far right.
Last week in Rome three mannequins dripping in fake blood were left outside a municipal building she was due to visit, with signs nearby reading "Immigration is the genocide of peoples. Kyenge resign!".
Balotelli's no-show was deemed a snub by some critics.
"I am not interested in what people say," said Balotelli, who was plainly irritated when the subject was brought up.
"I've already met Minister Kyenge, I will see her again in future and it was not a mandatory meeting. I was asleep, as were many other players in the squad, but nobody mentioned any of them.
"There's nothing in it and I think it's stupid that people want to make an issue of it."
(Editing by Sonia Oxley)