RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — If last year’s European Championship was the moment Mario Balotelli revealed himself to a global audience, this year’s Confederations Cup is shaping up as confirmation that he is a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.
And if Italy appeared hesitant at times to heap too much pressure on Balotelli in Poland and Ukraine, that’s no longer an issue.
When Balotelli scored the winning goal in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Mexico, it didn’t come as a surprise. He was a force to be reckoned with throughout the game at the Maracana Stadium.
According to Italy captain Gianluigi Buffon, the difference for Balotelli is that he has gained more confidence by playing regularly for AC Milan since his January transfer from Manchester City.
After 2 1/2 years of often being relegated to the substitutes' bench in England, Balotelli returned to Italy at the start of this year and scored 12 goals in just 13 appearances for Milan.
"Talent-wise, he's the same as a year ago, because Balotelli will always be extraordinary in the way he plays football, but now he's also found continuity with his club, which is something he didn't have before," Buffon said Monday. "That gives him serenity and extra self-confidence.
"It's a huge advantage to have a player like him," added Buffon, the senior member of the Azzurri at 35 and one of the few remnants from the squad that won the 2006 World Cup.
Italy was still well stocked with members of the 2006 squad at the 2009 Confederations Cup and it also opened that tournament with a win, beating the United States 3-1. But then the Azzurri lost to Egypt 1-0 and were humiliated 3-0 by Brazil, resulting in an embarrassing first-round elimination for the World Cup holders at the time.
The following year, Italy was again eliminated after the first round of the World Cup in South Africa.
"There's a substantial difference between now and 2009," Buffon said. "Over these last three years we've really matured in all aspects. This is a national team on the way up, and we're hoping to keep moving forward."
Balotelli tied as top scorer for the tournament with three goals when Italy reached the final of Euro 2012, including two spectacular goals in the 2-1 semifinal win over Germany, and he sees no reason why the Azzurri can't go just as far here.
"We're here to do the best possible, to reach the final," Balotelli said. "And I think this squad has the quality to get there."
Quality was certainly evident in the decisive goal for the first official match at the renovated Maracana stadium.
It was a goal that combined beauty and brute strength.
It started with a long vertical pass from Daniele De Rossi. With his back to the goal, Emanuele Giaccherini then volleyed the ball on to Balotelli with an acrobatic manoeuvr and Balotelli did the rest, out-muscling defenders on both sides of him and slotting the ball past the goalkeeper as he slid along the pitch.
The only negative aspect of the goal came when Balotelli pulled off his shirt, earning a yellow card. If Balotelli picks up another yellow in Italy's next match against Japan on Wednesday in Recife, he'll miss the Group A finale against host Brazil.
The yellow card, however, was likely the last thing on De Rossi's mind when he jumped on top of Balotelli's naked shoulders to join in the celebration. The image of Balotelli carrying a teammate on his back was more than appropriate.
Balotelli, a son of Ghanian immigrants, a player who has to deal with racist chants almost every match, is Italy's new leader.