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Nobody's fool: Little getting past Buffon

DUISBURG, Germany -- There is an extremely fine line between love and hate, fame and infamy, regarding goalkeepers.

During the 1990 World Cup, Walter Zenga blanked five successive opponents and had a 517-minute scoreless streak before mistiming an advance as Argentina's Claudio Caniggia headed in the tying goal in what would become penalty-kick elimination for Italy. After that, a very vocal segment of Italian fans blamed Zenga for losing the World Cup at home.

Now, Gianluigi Buffon is in a similar position to Zenga (whose playing career concluded with the New England Revolution in 1999), his 453 successive scoreless minutes a key to Italy's advance to the World Cup final against France at Berlin's Olympic Stadium tomorrow.

But Italy has a different scheme than 16 years ago. The Italians do not clam up into a defensive shell for extended periods, coach Marcello Lippi aligning the team in an attacking formation, disdaining the outdated catenaccio (which means door bolt in Italian).

Lippi represents a break with Italian tradition, which encouraged an ultra-conservative mentality, a siege mind-set that subjected defenders and goalkeepers to enormous, almost masochistic, pressure. Instead, Lippi protects advantages by adding attacking players, the opposite maneuver of his immediate predecessors.

In the days of Zenga and Dino Zoff, Italy's goalkeeper when it won the 1982 World Cup, the defense was watertight, but if a leak appeared it tended to become devastating.

Soccer is played at a faster pace now, there are more chances for openings. Attacking teams tend to succeed more often than excessively defensive teams, a lesson Lippi has learned after viewing the failure of Azeglio Vicini's team in 1990, Cesare Maldini's in '98, Zoff's in the 2000 European Championship, and Giovanni Trapattoni's '02 World Cup and '04 European Championship teams .

And Buffon is a goalkeeper for the modern game. He is big, extremely agile, and flexible. His uncle was a top goalkeeper in Italy's Serie A, his mother a shot putter and discus thrower for the national team. Buffon has an uninhibited personality and, partially because he started his career with a provincial club, is not as weighed down by the past as Zenga, who grew up with Inter, and was subject to the vicissitudes of being so closely identified with the club.

Buffon made his reputation with Parma, which challenged Europe's best under the banner of Parmalat, until being caught up with the company's financial irregularities. In 2001, Buffon went to Juventus on a $50 million transfer, the highest price paid for a goalkeeper. And Buffon has justified the investment.

``It is a record I am interested in and I would like to get it," Buffon said of Zenga's scoreless-minutes mark . ``But it all depends on us scoring a goal. This is all about Italia and not any personal satisfaction."

Buffon was injured before Euro 2000 and Francesco Toldo became the starting goalkeeper. Toldo surrendered the tying score in the final seconds of regulation time in the final, France taking a 2-1 golden-goal victory. Toldo was not solely blamed for that goal, but it has taken Italy several years to realize the real culprit was the excessively defensive tactics.

``I wasn't there in 2000 and other people were the protagonists," Buffon said. ``Maybe, if I were playing we would not have reached the final. Francesco [Toldo] made the difference in that tournament and the goalkeeper can make the difference."

Italy blanked Ghana (2-0) in its opener in Hanover June 12; Cristian Zaccardo scored an own goal in the 27th minute of a tie with the US (1-1) in Kaiserslautern June 17; and the Italians have won four times since, against the Czech Republic (2-0) in Hamburg June 22; Australia (1-0) in Kaiserslautern June 26; Ukraine (3-0) in Hamburg June 30; and Germany (2-0 in extra time) in Dortmund July 4. Central defender Fabio Cannavaro has been a prime factor in Italy's success and Andrea Barzagli and Marco Materazzi have filled in for Alessandro Nesta, who was injured against the Czechs.

``Team spirit is the strength of this team, as opposed to anything egotistic," Buffon said. ``We have team objectives but the qualities of individuals and everyone's personal merits makes the group better.

``The day before we started training [May 21] I would not have believed we would arrive at this point. The players were all convinced of their ability and we have confidence and faith in the way we work as a team, but you never believe you will get here, because something negative could happen, this luck, and skill, will be with you the whole tournament."

Buffon is among eight Juventus players in this game. Juve, facing relegation after a match-fixing scandal, has lost coach Fabio Capello (to Real Madrid) and the Azzurri could be losing Lippi (to Manchester United) after the World Cup.

``Having so many Juventini in the game is something for the Juventus directors to be proud of," Buffon said. ``But what is happening in Italy has nothing to do with the players and it won't have anything to do with what happens on the field of play.

``In the end, everyone has to decide for themselves what situation they want. I don't know about staying at Juventus but it doesn't matter what others do, you have to decide for yourself. But I am proud to be a player on the national team. [Lippi] has a quality of never discounting anyone and motivating everyone to 120 percent. To him, everyone is important, without any distinctions, and this is what makes the group solid and it is difficult to do this as a coach."

The Azzurri also lost to France on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals in the '98 World Cup, the French going on to win the event for the first time at home.

``As the tournament was about to start, we thought [Thierry] Henry would be their leader, but it's obvious [Zinedine] Zidane is the leader, and he is a great player," Buffon said. ``But we have less to worry about with France than in 1998 because then they were playing at home, it was the quarterfinals, and they were eight years younger. We didn't have quite the same confidence in 2000 as we do now, plus we were a little tired. This time, with all respect for the French players and their ability, we have the confidence, and that without being presumptuous."

CORNER KICKS Check out our World Cup blog at www.boston.com/worldcup for updates and insights from John Powers and Frank Dell'Apa in Germany.

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