ROME (AP) — It was Italy's night against the Germans, on and off the field.
Premier Mario Monti and striker Mario Balotelli gave a much-needed boost to a country suffering for months under harsh austerity measures and embarrassed by a match-fixing scandal in its national sport in which dozens have been arrested.
Then came Thursday.
At an EU summit in Brussels, Monti, an economist by trade, led the charge against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had been resisting ways of easing strains on indebted governments in southern Europe.
To the east in Warsaw, the talented soccer player with a discipline problem led Italy's national team to a 2-1 victory over Germany, propelling them into the finals of the European soccer championships. Balotelli's two goals were so breathtaking to watch — unstoppable, intimidating and elegant — that fans and critics alike were united in awe.
"They may be the bosses of Europe, but in soccer we command," headlined Italy's leading Corriere della Sera.
Monti, an economics professor who replaced the flamboyant Silvio Berlusconi with a mandate to put debt-ridden Italy's finances in order, had vowed to keep talking at the EU summit until an agreement was hammered out. Those talks didn't break up until just before dawn. So he was smiling broadly when he left — and it wasn't just about the soccer score.
"May I stress that Italy worked a lot and put a lot of pressure at the negotiating table for this result to be achieved," he said, referring to measures to contain borrowing costs. "This is a contribution of ideas that Italy put on the table which in the end were supported by everybody."
During the overnight talks, Monti seemed to be leading the charge against Merkel and several other northern European leaders who fear having to pay even more in bailouts and loans for the profligate south, composed of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
At a news conference Friday, Monti called Merkel a "protagonist of a constructive and let's say sporting debate." He said relations with her were "excellent, as they were before."
The European leaders agreed to funnel money directly to struggling banks and in the longer term to form a tighter union. The agreements suggested Germany had yielded a bit on its insistence on forcing tough reforms in exchange for rescue money.
German media ran comments under headlines such as "The Night In Which Merkel Lost" and "Merkel Buckles."
The other Mario, meanwhile, plays for the English club Manchester City and is an infamous prankster. Balotelli's list of off-field indiscretions include once setting his house on fire by launching fireworks from his bathroom window. He has also picked up a number of red cards for on-field infractions, including one for stomping on a player.
Italian papers suddenly started calling him "Super Mario" after the unforgettable photo Thursday night of him ripping off his jersey and flexing his muscles after his second goal.
"Germany surrenders to Balotelli," the Corriere della Sera wrote.
With the two stellar performances, is a new European world order emerging?
Italian fan Fiorella Capobianco, out celebrating in Rome's Piazza del Popolo where fans watched the game on big screens, didn't think so.
"Let's not talk politics. Still at least in soccer we have prevailed!" the 24-year-old said, nearly drowned out by the cheers of jubilation in the streets.
AP writers Toby Sterling and Angela Charlton contributed from Brussels