RECIFE, Brazil (AP) — Mario Balotelli couldn’t care less if he’s mentioned in the same breath as Neymar or Lionel Messi at this World Cup — as long as he comes away with the trophy.
Having scored the winning goal in Italy’s 2-1 victory over England and now getting ready for Friday’s match against Costa Rica, the temperamental forward has gained more attention than any other Azzurri player in Brazil.
“I hope this is Italy’s World Cup, not Mario’s. I’m not really interested in being compared with the big stars,” Balotelli said Thursday. “In the end it’s the squad that wins. I don’t want to be a big star. I want to win the World Cup.”
“Personally, I want to score as many goals as possible,” he added at the official pre-match news conference. “But the important thing is that the squad wins and advances.”
Wearing a black cap turned backward and a total of three diamond earrings — two on his right ear, one on the left — Balotelli was his usual candid self.
Asked if he minds being the lone forward in coach Cesare Prandelli’s 4-1-4-1 formation, Balotelli snapped back: “As long as I play.”
This is a first World Cup for Balotelli, who helped lead Italy to the 2012 European Championship final.
“This is the biggest event of my career and I want to give my all,” he said. “The World Cup is more important than the Golden Ball, the Champions League or the ‘scudetto’ (Serie A title), so it’s only normal that it creates a spark inside of you.”
Balotelli has made headlines almost from the moment he landed in Brazil, first by proposing to his Belgian girlfriend on a moon-lit beach in the week leading up to the England match.
“The proposal had nothing to do with the World Cup,” Balotelli said. “The proposal would have occurred even without the World Cup.”
Balotelli is coming off an up-and-down club season with AC Milan and has been the subject of rampant transfer speculation in recent weeks. There have been reports that Arsenal is offering Milan a EUR30 million ($40 million) transfer fee, and a contract for Balotelli worth 180,000 pounds (more than $300,000) per week.
“My focus is 100 percent on the World Cup,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen afterward. I don’t know anything.”
While he does appear focused, Balotelli was not prepared for questions about Costa Rica’s players.
For example, what does he think about Keylor Navas, who had a strong season with Levante and is considered one of the top goalkeepers in the Spanish league?
“Honestly, I’m unprepared for this question because I haven’t seen the Costa Rica goalkeeper,” he responded.
OK, so what impressed him about Costa Rica’s defense in a 3-1 win over Uruguay?
“I saw the match but to be sincere I didn’t study the players,” Balotelli said. “I’ll watch them tonight.”
That was the point when Prandelli butted in and offered help.
“If you want, I can answer about all of the players,” the coach told a Costa Rican journalist with a smile.
Costa Rica defender Giancarlo Gonzalez, however, wasn’t amused.
“We will let the world know that we are here,” Gonzalez said.
Sitting right next to Balotelli, Prandelli managed to analyze his prized player’s hot and cold streaks as if he were there alone.
“If you look at Mario in these four years there have been moments of alarm,” Prandelli said. “One moment he’s the man who’s going to bring you to the top of the world and then a moment later he shouldn’t even be at the World Cup.”
“The important thing for us is for him to stay focused and play like he did in the last match,” Prandelli added. “If he does that for 90 minutes he could be decisive. He needs to give 100 percent.”
Andrew Dampf can be followed at www.twitter.com/asdampf
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