Nine days after getting sent off in a soccer World Cup qualifier, Italy striker Mario Balotelli left the field to a standing ovation following his winning goal in his team’s Confederations Cup opener.
Balotelli was lauded by the majority of the 73,123 spectators inside Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium yesterday when he was substituted eight minutes after scoring the second-half goal that gave Italy a 2-1 victory against Mexico.
“The fans are maybe conditioned by the way a player plays and by the way a player shows fair play,” Italy coach Cesare Prandelli told reporters. “Mario played very well.”
Balotelli’s departure from the game contrasted with his exit from Italy’s scoreless draw against the Czech Republic on June 7, when he kicked and punched the players’ tunnel after being ejected for receiving two yellow cards in the space of three minutes. He later apologized for his actions.
His 78th-minute strike yesterday helped ensure Andrea Pirlo’s 100th international match ended in a victory. Pirlo had earlier put Italy ahead with a curling free kick in the 27th minute before Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez tied it with with a penalty kick seven minutes later.
The victory means Italy and Brazil top Group A after the tournament host, which is using the eight-team event as a tuneup for its staging of the 2014 World Cup, beat Japan 3-0 two days ago. World champion Spain defeated Uruguay 2-1 in yesterday’s Group B opener. Tahiti faces Nigeria today in Belo Horizonte.
The match at the Maracana was the first competitive game at the stadium since it was reopened in April following a refit that cost about $500 million. Before the kick off, police used tear gas to clear protesters at a Confederations Cup game for the second straight day.
The demonstrations come amid anger over the cost of Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup. President Dilma Rousseff was jeered by sections of the crowd before the national team beat Japan in Brasilia, a game that also was preceded by protests.
“I want to first see the overall picture before I give my opinion,” Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo told reporters yesterday.
For Italy, the competition is a chance to improve on its group-stage elimination at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. The Italians failed to win a World Cup game in the same country a year later.
The pre-match focus was on Pirlo. The Juventus midfielder, a member of Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning team, had talked about his free kick technique on the eve of the game and got the chance to demonstrate his skill in the 27th minute.
The 34-year-old jogged five paces toward the ball before sweeping it over the wall and beyond Mexico goalkeeper Jose Corona from 25 yards out. He had time to kiss the ring finger on his left hand before being mobbed by his teammates.
“It’s a great feeling to get 100 caps and to score in the game, especially in a historical stadium like the Maracana,” said Pirlo, who voted as the man of the match. “I could only have dreamed about this as a child.”
Coach Prandelli said Pirlo was deserving of the milestone.
“Andrea Pirlo is football for us in Italy,” he said. “He’s never wanted to become a character, he’s very down to earth, very normal. But he’s always been a fantastic player on the pitch.”
Mexico threatened to spoil the occasion when Andrea Barzagli lost the ball to Giovani dos Santos and hauled the Mexican winger down in the penalty area. Hernandez rolled the resultant spot-kick into the corner to make it 1-1.
With Italy failing to convert its dominance of possession into chances, Balotelli conjured a goal from an unlikely position. He controlled Emanuele Giaccherini’s pass with his back to goal before using his strength to get beyond Mexico captain Francisco Rodriguez and shoot past Corona.
Balotelli got a yellow card for removing his shirt in celebration, a regular occurrence during his career.
“We had talked about this to Mario,” Prandelli said. “We told him everyone has seen his muscles by now. As of the next game he doesn’t need to show off his muscles by taking off his shirt.”
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