Balotelli hints at new Italy but Africans score on style
Italy 0 Ivory Coast 1
His compatriots came here in search of temporary refuge, a sanctuary from the wrath of a nation. For Mario Balotelli, however, this may prove the beginning of a more lasting asylum.
That, admittedly, is a solution this fractious, formidable young talent has often been recommended in its least complimentary sense. The idea is that his debut for Italy here last night will prove only the first of many appearances on Premier League grounds this season. If that is so, then Roberto Mancini must somehow contrive a filial kinship amid the febrile competition for places at Manchester City – where those already signed this summer include Yaya Touré, who lined up against him as the captain of Ivory Coast.
And it was another potential team-mate, Kolo Touré, who effectively ended his evening with the only goal after 55 minutes. Within five minutes Balotelli had been replaced, having shown only glimpses of what makes Mancini insist he is worth all the hassle – such wit, harnessed to such brawn, like some flighty, unbroken young colt. He did go close with a free-kick in the opening minutes, but overall proved excusably short of fitness.
Balotelli had been introduced to the British climate by an evening of drizzle in east London, and if the District Line conveyed an unusual match-day percentage of designer jeans and spectacles towards the Boleyn Ground, and just 11,176 souls, he will not have been deceived that this was just some gaudy, pre-season exhibition.
Never mind Manchester City. First and foremost, Balotelli arrived as the symbol of a new beginning for the Azzurri, whose ignominy in South Africa – as holders, they finished bottom of their group – surpassed that of England.
And by starting not just with Balotelli, but with Antonio Cassano and Amauri, Cesare Prandelli made an overt break from the disgraced squad of Marcello Lippi. The Italians, he implied, have relied too long on bolting their own door. It was time to bring along a set of keys as well. The new regime has even seduced Roberto Baggio, who has been hunting boar in Argentina since retiring in 2004, as technical director.
That is what last night was supposed to be about, but this proved a staccato performance. Marco Motta hit the post just after the interval, but half-a-dozen Italian substitutions interrupted some decorative intentions and instead it was one of Africa's most flamboyant teams that proved better able to shed their own World Cup disappointment.
But Prandelli had made his biggest statement before the kick-off. At Internazionale, Balotelli was too literally outrageous a talent even for Jose Mourinho to bring to heel. And Cassano was likewise ostracised as too delinquent by Lippi. Amauri, meanwhile, represents another kind of outsider, naturalised only in the spring after his long exile from Brazil. By combining Amauri with Balotelli, Prandelli has sought to emulate the new Germans.
By the end, Prandelli had replaced all three. Cassano had made the most auspicuous contribution – but you long to see more of Fabio Quagliarella, author of the tournament's most gorgeous goal just moments before his tears provided the abiding image of Italy's World Cup exit.
He is effectively in direct competition with Balotelli, for whom Prandelli calls this the beginning of a long journey. In exhorting his men that "we must take risks, overcome our fears", he has been using the same sort of formula as his compatriot at Wembley tonight. And if deeds did not yet match his words last night, the idea is example enough.
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