Plays at the back, leads from the front
WHEN CESARE Prandelli took over the Italian team in the wake of Italy’s bitterly disappointing first round elimination in South Africa two years ago, he immediately laid down some “bench marks” as to the way forward for the new-look Italy.
Firstly, he decided to make Gigi Buffon the new team captain in succession to Fabio Cannavaro. This was hardly a difficult call. The 34-year-old Buffon, who tonight wins his 119th cap against Germany, has been one of the outstanding goalkeepers in Italian and world football for a decade and more.
Buffon, of course, is your original boy wonder who made his professional debut at age 17 for Parma in a Serie A top-of-the-table clash with the mighty AC Milan in November 1995.
The Italian keeper was such an early starter that he holds the unique record of being the only player at Euro 2012 who also featured in a team squad at the France 98 World Cup, where he was a non-playing reserve in Cesare Maldini’s team.
The intriguing thing about Buffon, however, is that at this tournament, he has not only reminded us of his prowess in goal – witness Italy’s quarter-final win over England – but he has also proved himself to be an effective, inspirational captain.
Right from the pre-tournament training camp when the “Last Bet” match-fixing scandal threatened not only to undermine Italy’s preparations but also to cause Buffon himself serious embarrassment (in relation to his alleged betting habits), the captain has spoken out.
In a remarkable news conference at the Federation training centre in Coverciano, Florence, four weeks ago, Buffon argued angrily against a “tar them all with the same brush” media attitude to the national team.
OK, some of our colleagues have clearly done wrong, but that does not mean that we are all crooks, he exclaimed.
That outburst, of course, was prompted by the fact that the tangential involvement of the Zenit St Petersburg defender, Mimmo Criscito, in the “Last Bet” investigation prompted Prandelli and the Federation to decide that it might be more “politic” to drop him from the Euro 2012 squad.
Likewise, 10 days ago, on the eve of Italy’s third first-round game, when the Italian media was full of speculation about the “biscuit”, better known as a 2-2 fixed draw between Spain and Croatia that would have eliminated Italy, Buffon again lost his cool.
“This is just offensive to the Spanish and the Croats,” he railed on his Facebook page.
Enough of our national obsession with the conspiracy theory, he exclaimed, “let us just go out there and win our matches on the pitch”.
The message was clear. We’re here to play football, not whine on about plots and alleged wrongs. That same message was clear when he called all the Italian team together for a most untypical, “up and at them” bonding moment prior to the shoot-out against England.
Not only that, but Buffon also took Alessandro Diamanti aside, advising him just where to put that all decisive fifth Italian place kick. Diamanti might be 29 years of age but this game represented only his third cap for Italy.
Afterwards, he was the first to acknowledge the value of the Buffon advice.
Throughout these finals, coach Prandelli has been careful to take things one game at a time, never making dramatic promises or setting himself specific targets. Buffon is much less coy. After the England game, he spelt it out loud and clear, saying this week:
“I could be happy with things, but I could also be very annoyed. If I get to the final and I win, then I will have a good reason to celebrate. I haven’t come here to finish third or fourth, not even to finish second.
“I was determined that we would get at least this far. But now that we’re here, I want us to push ourselves that bit further because we can do it.
“Germany are the favourites all right but we’re just the team to cause them problems that perhaps they didn’t expect.