ROME – Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy, sons of immigrants, are the new faces of Italy. And the AC Milan forwards will be leading the attack for the Azzurri at the Confederations Cup.
The 22-year-old Balotelli and the 20-year-old El Shaarawy form the youngest forward tandem of any elite national team. And while they haven't played together much with Italy yet, the pairing helped Milan overcome a slow start and qualify for next season's Champions League after Balotelli was acquired 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 significant than the scoring is the image of players born to foreigners representing a country that has long been ill at ease with its growing immigrant population.
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 has repeatedly been 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's under-15 and under-17 national teams because he could not apply for Italian citizenship until he was 18, according to a law that Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge is attempting to change. Kyenge is Italy's first black cabinet minister.
He debuted for the under-21 team in 2008 and made his full national team debut in August 2010 in Italy's first match after the World Cup. He has eight goals in 21 international appearances, including a pair in the 2-1 win over Germany in last year's European Championship semifinals.
The diminutive El Shaarawy gained prominence in the first half of the Serie A season after Milan sold Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Paris Saint-Germain. El Shaarawy was the league's top scorer at the season's midpoint with 14 goals, and he has also drawn praise for his willingness to run back and help out on defense.
However, El Shaarawy struggled in the second half of the season.
"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 dropoff. So many people said he was tired, that in the end he convinced himself that he was tired, too."