It took over two years for Gigi Riva to open his scoring account for the Italian national side. Having debuted against Hungary in June 1965, the Cagliari legend had to wait until his fourth cap during a European Championship qualifier against Cyprus, in November 1967, to ripple the net.
Having come out for the second half 2-0 up in Cosenza, the striker, then six days shy of his 23rd birthday, completed a sensational 13 minute hat-trick to stake his claim to a regular place in the team. It was the beginning of a scoring streak which saw him celebrate an incredible 18 goals over a 12-game period for the Azzurri.
Today, Riva is Italy’s all time top scorer thanks to 35 strikes in just 42 games for his country – having surpassed Giuseppe Meazza’s 33 in 53 record and Silvio Piola’s tally of 30 in 34. In the modern era, Roberto Baggio and Alessandro Del Piero managed 27 – also thanks to penalty duties which saw them net seven and six spot-kicks respectively – but nobody has really threatened to surpass the great Gigi.
Now, 37 years after the owner of the Cagliari No 11 shirt last played for Italy at the 1974 World Cup, Mario Balotelli has, in theory at least, the possibility to re-write history and dethrone the Sardinian icon as the country’s most prolific goalscorer.
“There are certain similarities between us as players,” Riva, who presently works for the Italian national side, noted. “He has quality, including an eye for goal and power. He could really become a great player and I hope he could be my heir, but it all depends on him now.”
As it stands, Balotelli seemingly has all that he needs in place to score goals on the international stage for the next decade and, in doing so, edge towards that Riva achievement. He has the time, the potential and now an opportunity to cement his place in the starting XI after being on the fringes of the first team since the appointment of Cesare Prandelli in the summer of 2010.
Balotelli won his first cap in August last year aged 19 years, 11 months and 29 days. To put that into perspective, Meazza was 19 years, five months and 17 days old when he made his Italy debut back in February 1930. If he can stay injury free, unlike Riva whose career was cut short by physical problems, there is no on the field reason why he wouldn’t be in the Giro Azzurro from now until he hits 30.
In terms of ability, Balotelli is somewhat unique on the Italian footballing landscape. There are other players who know where the goal is – such as Giampaolo Pazzini, Alessandro Matri and Giuseppe Rossi – but they don’t have the Manchester City man’s combination of strength and skill.
It’s a mix which Prandelli is now starting to make use of as the last two games, where Mario has impressed, have testified. Without the injured Rossi and the recovering Antonio Cassano for the next six months, Balotelli has been handed the chance to make his claim for a starting shirt and the possibility of playing in multiple games at Euro 2012 next summer.
If the sometimes unpredictable Super Mario can continue to mature – as he has been doing in recent months for club and country – and be fortunate enough to be a part of a competitive Azzurri national side, then his maiden Italian strike in Poland on Friday, during his sixth cap, could well be the first step up a 36 rung ladder.