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World Cup 2014: Mario Balotelli helps Italy defeat England, 2-1

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Italy, playing without star goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, holds off England, 2-1, in World Cup opener
Mercurial Mario Balotelli scores early in second half to provide winning margin for Italy over England

There is a website operator who compiles what he has titled "The Complete History of Mario Balotelli's Shenanigans." Must be a full-time job. Even acknowledging that some entrants are exaggerated or manufactured, 46 seems a lot, especially for a 23-year-old.

The striker avoids defenders much better than he does controversy. Hovering near the far post, unseen by England's back line, Balotelli directed a parabolic cross off his mohawk and into the net early in the second half, and Italy withstood the 11th-hour scratch of its venerable goalkeeper to upend England, 2-1, in a World Cup Group D opening game Saturday.

Gianluigi Buffon's twisted ankle, labeled before Saturday as slight by hopeful and/or obfuscating Coach Cesare Prandelli, proved serious enough to sit a player identified by a reputable international soccer society as the globe's supreme keeper of this century. As a veteran of 140 international matches, Buffon, 36, has more caps than a haberdashery. The ravages of age have yet to chip away, and he is a steadying hand on a team sometimes distracted by Balotelli's bouts of immaturity.

Buffon's stand-in, the promising Salvatore Sirigu, had partaken in only one meaningful game with the national team. Though England unloaded 18 shots, only five were on goal, and Sirigu was required to make just one demanding save.

Balotelli's celebrity counterpart, Wayne Rooney of England, served an exquisite pass for a tap-in goal to Daniel Sturridge, but the prolific scorer in non-World Cup settings remained without a point through nine career Cup matches. Rooney missed three tries, one of which looked like a sure thing upon leaving his foot.

The Brits were bumped around in the box, and a certain Japanese referee might have awarded them at least one penalty kick. But Holland's Bjorn Kuipers let them play all day at both ends.

Balotelli casually blooped in a first-half shot that was cleared off the line at the last gasp by a leaping defender. Super Mario's tiebreaking score was described by ESPN announcer Ian Darke as "so easy, like shelling peas."

For those of us who have not shelled peas, the task sounds difficult. But that is Balotelli -- making the difficult look easy. A list of amazing plays would stretch longer than the one chronicling his shenanigans.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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