Tonight, the Azzurri take on Spain in the Euro 2012 final. After drawing with them one-all in their very first match of the tournament, they are now to meet again on a bigger stage - it's a bit like what happens if you get to the final challenge on The Cube, when, to win the £250,000 prize, you have to redo the very first task you did on the show. But they've made it a lot harder - the thin pole you had to balance a ping-pong ball on for 30 seconds at the beginning has now been replaced by a crocodile with a grudge, and the ball is now a cloud of poisonous gas - that sort of thing.
Well, it's not really like that at all. Only the pressure has increased - both squads are exactly the same. Which is good for us, as we get to see more of Italy's magnificent superstar captain and goalkeeper, Gianluigi Buffon. Here are some reasons why Half-Time Oranges (along with everyone else) rates him:
1. Let's just get this one out of the way nice and early: he's probably the best goalkeeper in the world. And also probably the best loved.
2. He has a meaty sense of humour, combined with an even meatier sense of self-worth. Before his quarter-final match against England, he was asked by the press if he and his two fellow goalkeepers had been studying videos of England penalties. The three of them let a burst of derisive laughter answer that question. (The fact is, it did end in penalties, and Buffon might have looked a smidge sheepish if Italy had gone on to lose - but they nailed it, so the joke stands).
3. He's daddish. After Italy's brilliant performance against Germany in the semi-finals was almost derailed in the dying minutes as the Azzurri conceded a nervy penalty, Buffon was furious. He felt a responsibility to be angry towards the team's skittish younger players, saying, "We are still young, apart from a few old men in the squad, and need to learn. It's only right for the old men to tell them off and stir up trouble. I was angry." Damn straight. But it didn't stop him giving them the odd cheeky high-five during the match itself. Like a cool dad.
4. Goal celebrations have always been a thing, but Buffon leads the charge in save celebrations. No sooner has the ball glanced off an artfully positioned index finger in a top corner and lolloped safely wide than Buffon is running forwards and punching the air, roaring like a Roman war god. Keepers aren't given much cred in British football, but on the continent, Buffon is making saving glamorous.
5. All of the ridiculous kits and colours he's worn and rocked.
There's been a lot of talk about Balotelli representing a new spark in the national team's future, and also of Pirlo being the linchpin of the squad. But without Buffon - a steady hand, superhuman saver, inspiration and father figure - Italy would be a poorer side. He's probably set to retire in the next few years, so enjoy watching him at his peak while you can.
Some classic Buffon saves, complete with
enjoyable Italian commentary.
enjoyable Italian commentary.