x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Confederations Cup: There is a new attack for the Azzurri

The scoring duo of Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy are sons of Italian immigrants and will lead Italy at the Confederations Cup in Brazil, writes Andrew Dampf.

AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli, right, and Stephan El Shaarawy are expected to lead the Italian front line this week at the Confederations Cup in Brazil. Vincenzo Pinto / AFP
AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli, right, and Stephan El Shaarawy are expected to lead the Italian front line this week at the Confederations Cup in Brazil. Vincenzo Pinto / AFP

Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy, both sons of immigrants, are the new faces of Italy.

And at the Confederations Cup in Brazil, the AC Milan forwards will be leading the attack.

With a combined age of 42, the 22-year-old Balotelli and the 20-year-old El Shaarawy also form the youngest forward tandem of any elite national team.

While they have not played together much with Italy yet, the pairing worked well at Milan in the second half of the Italian season after Balotelli transferred from Manchester City in January.

El Shaarawy tied for third in Serie A with 16 goals and Balotelli scored 12 in only 13 appearances. Perhaps even more important than the numbers, though, is the image of two players born to foreigners representing a country that has long been ill at ease with its growing immigrant classes.

Balotelli was born in Sicily to Ghanaian immigrants before being adopted by an Italian family. El Shaarawy, who was born in the Ligurian town of Savona to an Italian mother and Egyptian father, is nicknamed "Il Faraone" – The Pharaoh.

Balotelli is often the target of racist chants during Serie A matches, and sometimes during national team games, too.

In May, a Serie A match against Roma, was suspended for the first time – albeit for only a couple minutes in the second half –due to racist chants directed at Balotelli.

"They say that football is combating racism but it doesn't seem so to me, looking at the rules," Balotelli said. "Not enough is being done. All they've done is given the referee the power to suspend a match in cases of certain chants. But the fact is that his feeling might not be the same as mine. Shouldn't I decide if an insult is taken as racist or not?

"Racism is a real problem here and it needs to be combated with more determination," Balotelli said. "I don't know if we'll ever win the battle but we've all got to try to together."

Balotelli could not play for Italy Under 15s and U17s because he could not apply for Italian citizenship until he was 18, according to a law that Cecile Kyenge, the integration minister and Italy's first black cabinet member, is attempting to change.

Since he has started playing for Italy, Balotelli has been impressive. His two-goal performance in the 2-1 win over Germany in last year's European Championship semi-finals was a display of his raw power.

The diminutive El Shaarawy, meanwhile, shot to prominence in the first half of the Serie A season after Zlatan Ibrahimovic left Milan for Paris Saint-Germain. With 14 goals, he was the league's top scorer at the season's midpoint, and he has also drawn praise for his willingness to run back and help out his defenders as well.

However, El Shaarawy struggled to recapture that form in the second half of the season, with Italian media surmising he was tired.

"It's not true that he's tired," the Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "Our data says exactly the opposite - that he's one of the players in the best form. Evidently, at the end of the season he had a mental drop off. So many people said he was tired that in the end he convinced himself that he was tired, too."

Either way, Italy's attack is at the feet of Balotelli and El Shaarawy.

Italy at a glance

Fifa world ranking 8

Qualified Euro 2012 runners-up; Spain qualified as world champions.

Best Confederations Cup result none

Other major honours World Cup winners: 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006; European champions: 1968

Coach Cesare Prandelli

Prospects Italy have made a good start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, with four wins in five Group B matches, and should be back in Brazil next year. Italy qualified for this tournament after finishing runners-up to Spain in last year’s European Championship and Prandelli is taking it seriously. Maintaining his strict rules, he dropped the Roma forward Pablo Osvaldo from the squad after his rant at his club coach at the end of the Coppa Italia final against Lazio last month. Italy are in Group A with Brazil, Japan and Mexico and should reach the semi-finals.

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