MANAUS, BRAZIL – With one nod of his head, Mario Balotelli gave Italy a 2-1 win over England and put the four-time champions in position to go far at the World Cup.
The often volatile and often brilliant Italy striker was left unmarked at the far post, giving him plenty of space to head a cross from Antonio Candreva past goalkeeper Joe Hart for the winning goal.
Claudio Marchisio had scored first for Italy, sending a long shot through a crowded area and past a diving Hart in the 35th. Daniel Sturridge equalized for England two minutes later, tapping in a cross from Wayne Rooney.
Ballotelli’s header came in the 50th, but with the heat and humidity at the Arena da Amazonia slowing the pace of play in the second half, it came at just the right time.
“We won, but now let’s keep our feet on the ground, otherwise we’re not going anywhere,” Balotelli said.
The match was played in the Amazonian city of Manaus, the most exotic of the 12 World Cup venues for this year’s tournament. According to FIFA, it was 30 degrees C with humidity at 61 percent for the match.
“At times it felt like having hallucinations due to the heat,” said Claudio Marchisio, who scored Italy’s opening goal.
In the other Group D match, Costa Rica beat Uruguay 3-1. So both England and Uruguay, who meet Thursday, have plenty of work to do to advance.
“We all need time to digest what happened on the field,” England coach Roy Hodgson said. “My gut feeling is that we did very good things. There were some very good individual performances.”
Balotelli is one of the most talented strikers in soccer, but there were some predictions heading into the World Cup that he would be dropped in favor of Ciro Immobile.
Immobile, who plays for Torino, scored a hat trick last weekend in a warmup match against Brazilian club Fluminense. Coach Cesare Prandelli, however, decided to stick with his main man, and it certainly looked like the right choice.
“He gave everything he had,” Prandelli said.
Prandelli was pleased with both the team performance and the preparations in Coverciano, Italy’s training base back in Florence.
“We played well. It was a tough victory but we maintained supremacy in the middle of the pitch,” he said. “We worked well in Coverciano and you could see that. They (England) had cramps midway through the second half, and that shows that our work paid off.”
Balotelli was born to Ghanaian immigrants and raised by Italian foster parents, and has often been forced to deal with racist chanting in Italy. However, the abuse hasn’t prevented him from becoming a key player for the national team — scoring two goals in the semifinal win over Germany at the 2012 European Championship.
Until Saturday, he hadn’t scored for the national team since October.
“This was a very difficult (game) because England are a good team and there was the climate as well,” Balotelli said. “We suffered, but then that’s typical for Italy — the important thing is to win. “