It has been proven in the past that a single spark of madness by Mario Balotelli can burn a house down. Three years ago, when still a Manchester City player, the Italian striker had burst a firecracker in the bathroom of his £3m Cheshire apartment, causing ‘a substantial fire’. Today, that single spark set flame to Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, and perhaps all of the country surrounding good ole’ Cheshire.
That spark in concern wasn’t his roaring 50th minute header that won the Group D match for Italy 2-1 against England on Saturday. No. It was lit far earlier, when the scoreline was still 0-0, just 20 or so minutes after the two sides kicked off their respective World Cup campaigns in a most sombre fashion.
Italy were always expected to defend like their lives depended on it. But rather unusually, it was England who were the inactive one at the start of proceedings, what with captain Steven Gerrard sitting deep enough to be called a central defender. Gerrard was but adding meat to his inexperienced central defenders — Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka. None of them, numbers four, five and six, however, could stop Italy’s number nine — the very mercurial Mario — from pulling out the matchbox from his pocket.
Until then, the 27th minute of the game, Balotelli was absent mentally. Had a camera only focussed on him, like in that Zinedine Zidane documentary called A 21st Century Portrait, the lens would have caught him wandering about England’s box, constantly colliding against its backline and being kept in tight check.
Then, in the 27th, the 23-year old found himself with the ball for the first time just outside the box. So he had some fun with it, swooping about 360 degrees on a stationary left foot to send his markers scuttering and launching the Brazuca screaming inches over the crossbar.
Two loose cannons, the shot and Balotelli, had ignited the match.
Till that point, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi, the heart of Italy’s midifeld, were working the ball wide into flanks, seeking Giorgio Chiellini or Claudio Marchisio on the left and Antonio Candreva or Matteo Darmian on the right. But after the Balotelli siren went off, the Azzurri’s engine began producing their passes more centrally.
One such move by De Rossi in the 34th minute, an aerial one threatening to go out of play, saw Candreva take off vertically and bicycle the ball back in from the edge of the six-yard box. And on it in a flash was Balotelli, acrobatically heading it at knee-length dangerously past his former City mate, England goalie Joe Hart.
It squirted just wide, though it always wouldn’t.
Well left, Pirlo
With Italy pressing ahead and very much on the prowl, a goal was but a matter of time. It came within a minute of Balotelli’s chance, off a corner. A short corner. With the kick and England’s defenders gravitating towards captain Pirlo, the Italian visionary jumped over it and let the ball roll to Marchisio, who in turn backed his instinct and pulled the trigger. It bulleted through a leggy wall and a pair of Hart’s hands.
That insurmountable joy for the Azzurri, though, was shortlived. Just three minutes to be precise, as Raheem Sterling (England’s most creative player on the field) was up to something notorious. Playing in the hole, he spotted Wayne Rooney creeping up the vacant left flank and stealthily swept him a pass. With weaved hair in tow, Rooney raced up to the very end of the road and flung in an inswinger that Jimmy Anderson would’ve been proud of.
The ball swung around the spines of Andrea Barzagli and Gabriel Paletta, Italy’s centre-backs. And it was collected on the half-volley by Daniel Sturridge’s outstretched right toe, just in front of a gaping goalmouth. Salvatore Sirigu, standing in for an injured Gianluigi Buffon, had a better shot of becoming Italy’s number one ‘keeper than saving that goal.
All square with just minutes to go for half-time, the game unfurled like the flags in the stands. Menacing counter-attacking moves darted around the field. On a few occasions, England’s frontline of Sterling, Sturridge and Danny Welbeck came close to taking the lead. But again, it was Balotelli that nearly did.
In the dying embers of the first half, well into injury-time, Balotelli made his presence felt just to the left of Hart’s territory. Hart decided, and decided foolishly, to charge Balotelli, who waited till the England goalie had reached a point of no return and sytlishly chipped the ball over his head. Had it not been for a goal-line clearance by Jagielka’s head, the game would’ve ended right there, just before the half-time whistle. But Jagielka was in place, so the game ended just after the half-time whistle instead.
Five minutes into the restart, Balotelli thundered Italy ahead by soaring his Mohawk in the way of a Candreva delivery. And 20 minutes later, he was substituted.
MB had left the building. Another building he had set fire to.