England's Wayne Rooney, right, looks on as Italy's Gabriel Paletta, center, and other Italian players celebrate after the group D World Cup soccer match between England and Italy at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Saturday, June 14, 2014.
MANAUS, Brazil — Back in 2013, before this summer's World Cup groups and match-ups had been set, England manager Roy Hodgson called Manaus "ideally the place to avoid." That triggered a touchy response from the mayor of this isolated jungle city of more than 1.5 million residents. Hodgson backtracked on his comments, deeming them irrelevant in a press conference at Arena da Amazonia Friday.
But after England's opening game against Italy Saturday, it seems Hodgson was right all along.
Mario Balotelli headed home the game-winning goal. Wayne Rooney remained a World Cup goal-scoring virgin. The masses of Brazilians in the stands aligned themselves firmly behind the Azzurri, and England lost the much-anticipated match by 2-1, setting up a must-win date with Uruguay on Thursday in São Paulo.
Even England's silver lining of a goal — a lovely pass from Rooney that Daniel Sturridge expertly tapped home to equalize in the 37th minute — came with its own unexpected cloud. Trainer Gary Lewin leapt to celebrate the score, landed on a water bottle, dislocated his ankle and was stretchered off the pitch. Hodgson said after the match that Lewin's World Cup is over.
English and Italian fans who made the trek from Europe into the jungle — to a city that's accessible only by boat or airplane — helped fill the Arena da Amazonia nearly to capacity, with a reported attendance of 39,800. But canary-yellow Brazil shirts were the most common piece of apparel spotted in the stands, and the Brazilians created a decisive home field advantage for Italy.
They participated in Italian fan's chants. They gave Balotelli a hearty cheer when manager Cesare Prandelli subbed him out in the 73rd minute. Some even carried signs like this one, which translates to "Manaus is with Italy":
England actually out-shot Italy, with eights shots on target to Italy's five. But Italy made more of its chances. And it was two tries that didn't quite go in that produced two of the night's most breathtaking moments.
First was this audacious chip shot from Balotelli in the first half that England defender Phil Jagielka just barely managed to save with a header.
Second was this twisting and totally confusing free kick from the veteran midfielder Andrea Pirlo that had England goalkeeper Joe Hart lunging in the wrong direction — but ultimately bounced off the crossbar.
Group D underdog Costa Rica's shocking 3-1 win over Uruguay earlier in the day means England needs to beat the talented group favorites on Thursday to have any real hope of advancing to the knockout stage.
That's a tall order indeed for any squad, especially this England one that looked quite ordinary on a muggy Saturday night in the jungle.
England fans did make a strong showing of spirit with red-and-white banners dominating the lower rim of the stadium, creating an illusion — if not the actual effect — of an advantage in support.
But those England fans hastily furled up their flags after the final whistle. It was an appropriate metaphor for the Three Lions' curdled hopes of following Costa Rica's lead and scoring a second Group D upset — here in the jungle Hodgson presciently knew they should avoid.