MANAUS, Brazil — In the middle of the Amazon rainforest, when the air is thickest and the night sky darkest, the most exotic of creatures come out. A feint that was seemingly engineered for Internet clicks. A header that resulted in victory. And Mario Balotelli, Italy’s colorful and controversial striker, who made his first World Cup goal a meaningful one.
Italy’s 2-1 victory over England at Arena Amazonia promises to carry heavy consequences. The competitive Group D already had been flipped on its head earlier in the day by feisty Costa Rica, and Italy’s win here Saturday night gives one of the tournament’s most talented squads plenty of early momentum.
The Italians can thank Balotelli’s mohawked head for that. In the 50th minute, the 23-year-old AC Milan striker took Antonio Candreva’s cross just a few yards short of the net and knocked in a header to break open a game that had been knotted at 1.
“It’s a special feeling,” Balotelli said. “I’ve never played in a World Cup, and it’s fantastic.”
Picking up three points here catapults the Italians, who are trying to match Brazil’s record of five World Cup titles, into Friday’s match against Costa Rica. It also means both England and Uruguay must overcome big deficits to advance out of the group.
Just 24 hours earlier, Group D appeared to be a three-horse race among Italy, England and Uruguay. But then, in the northeastern city of Fortaleza on Saturday afternoon, Costa Rica surprised Uruguay in a 3-1 victory and opened up plenty of possibilities.
“The fact is, if you lose the first game, you know you’ve got to probably win the next two,” England Coach Roy Hodgson said. “Then again, the teams you’re playing against need to win as well.”
Saturday’s game was the first of the tournament in the newly constructed Arena Amazonia, a 40,000-seat white beacon in the middle of the Amazon. It’s unique among the World Cup venues, presenting challenges for teams assigned games here. From some English corners, there had been grumbling in the months leading up to the World Cup about opening the tournament in Manaus — perhaps with good reason. The pitch appeared beaten in spots, and temperatures topped 86 degrees Saturday while the humidity measured 69 percent.
“Yes, it was very warm, it was sticky and the pitch was a tough pitch because it was dry and it was moving underfoot,” England captain Steven Gerrard said. “But they’re just excuses, and at the end of the day, Italy was a very good team tonight.”
The United States plays its second match of the tournament in Manaus next Sunday against Portugal.
“All conditions here in the Manaus or in the northern part of Brazil are going to be difficult because it is hot and humid and all teams, especially other European teams, are going to suffer,” Hodgson said. “But I don’t think we suffered particularly.”
After Costa Rica stunned Uruguay on Saturday afternoon, both England and Italy could’ve come into their World Cup opening match conservatively, content to leave Manaus and the sticky jungle heat with a single point. But in the 35th minute, Italy’s Marco Verratti received a corner kick and moved the ball across the field. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo pulled a nifty move out of his pocket, stepping over the ball and momentarily freezing England defenders. Pirlo’s teammate, midfielder Claudio Marchisio, wasn’t fooled, and when the ball rolled to him, he fired a rocket from the top of the box that gave Italy a 1-0 lead.
The Manaus crowd — half of it swathed in yellow Brazil jerseys — erupted, a celebration cutting through the thick air but doing little to dampen England’s spirits. The squad entered the tournament looking for its first title since 1966, and with a younger group of players — an average age of 27 — it arrived in Brazil unaccompanied by the expectations that weighed on previous groups.
Less than two minutes after Marchisio's score, Wayne Rooney, the Manchester United forward, booted a pass from the left corner of the box to a charging Daniel Sturridge, who barely needed to tap the ball in to tie the game at 1.
In the second half, England turned the dial up a few notches on its offensive attack but was unable to best Salvatore Sirigu, Italy’s surprise starter in goal after Gianluigi Buffon, the most-capped player in his country’s history, suffered an ankle injury Friday in training.
Sirigu, the Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper, faced 18 shots Saturday but only five on goal. Even when England became more desperate in the second half, Italy’s defense stood strong and Sirigu faced just two shots on goal in the final 50 minutes.
The team’s performance was even more impressive considering Italy was also without AC Milan defender Mattia de Sciglio, who suffered a muscle strain in his thigh last week.
England leaves the Amazon with more worries to contend with than the weather. With zero points and a big opportunity missed, England has another tough match waiting when it faces Uruguay on Thursday in Sao Paulo.
“It doesn’t change anything to be honest,” Sturridge said. “We’ve still got two games to show what we can do, two games to win.”