ROME (AP) — 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 haven't 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 constantly the target of racist chants during Serie A matches, and sometimes during national team games, too. In May, a Serie A match 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 combatting 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 combatted with more determination," Balotelli added. "I don't know if we'll ever win the battle but we've all got to try to together." Balotelli couldn't play for Italy Under-15s and Under-17s because he could not apply for Italian citizenship until he was 18 according to a law that Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, Italy's first black Cabinet minister, is attempting to change.
Since he did start playing for Italy, Balotelli has been devastating. His two-goal performance in the 2-1 win over Germany in last year's European Championship semifinals 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 on the defensive end as well.
However, El Shaarawy struggled in the second half of the season, with local media surmising that he was tired. "It's not true that he's tired," 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 Balotelli's and El Shaarawy's feet.