Last sentinel of `Fortress Italy'

Gianluigi Buffon, the world's most expensive goalkeeper, is fully fit and ready for World Cup action, writes Andy Hampson.

A colourful character, Gianluigi Buffon is the most expensive goalkeeper in the world and Italy's number one. He commanded a world record fee for a goalkeeper when Juventus paid GBP33 million to buy him from Parma in 2001.

Buffon was born in Carrara, Tuscany, into a very sporting family. His mother, Maria Stella, was a discus thrower and his father, Adriano, a weightlifter. He is also the nephew of former Italy and AC Milan goalkeeper Lorenzo Buffon and another uncle, Angelo Masocco, played basketball. His sisters, Veronica and Guendalina, are volleyball players.

Buffon's early footballing years were spent as a midfielder. He now claims, in typical Buffon fashion, that he switched to goalkeeping because he wanted to do less running. In truth, though, Buffon is ideally suited to the goalkeeper's role, boasting as he does high levels of athleticism and agility.

He was signed by Parma as a teenager and made his Serie `A' debut at the age of 17. He immediately caught the eye and was capped by Italy at 19. His Italy debut came in a World Cup play-off in Russia in 1997 as a first-half replacement for the injured Gianluca Pagliuca.

In his time with Juventus, Buffon has helped the club to three Serie `A' titles and a fourth would appear well on the way in 2006. He also has a good record of saving penalties, although Juventus still lost the 2003 Champions League final to AC Milan despite him parrying two spot-kicks in the shoot-out.

Buffon is known as a bit of a character. He is often one of the last to arrive for training and likes to party. He has courted controversy for presenting false qualifications for an evening course and for choosing the number 88 for his Parma jersey. The number has associations with the far right, but he merely claimed he liked the number.

Buffon was forced to miss Euro 2000 with a hand problem and suffered further injury agony earlier this season. The keeper needed facial surgery after a collision with Milan's Kaka in a pre-season friendly and was kept out of action until November. He is now fully fit and ready for the World Cup.

Buffon is currently dating Alena Seredova, the famous Czech-born topless model who has made her name in Italy. The pair's relationship has attracted a lot of attention since it became common knowledge last year and Buffon has criticised the media this year for prying too much into his private life. He also had to deny rumours that Seredova was pregnant.

Buffon claims two of the other great passions in his life are clothes and dogs. His favourite designer is Giorgio Armani and he has a number of smart suits. He has two Labradors called Ugo and Leto.

Buffon was infamously pulled over and beaten up by police in 2001 after being mistaken for a hooligan on the motorway. He had been travelling home from a match when he aroused suspicion overtaking a convoy of supporters coaches in his Porsche. He was not seriously injured, however, and did not take action. "The police are in a tense situation and can also lose control," he said. "The matter is over and done with."

FACTFILE Position: Goalkeeper Club: Juventus DOB: January 28, 1978 Italy Caps: 113 Italy Goals: 0 Italy debut: v Russia, Oct. 1997

Moment to remember: Buffon produced one of his best performances to deny Barcelona time after time as Juventus secured a place in the 2003 Champions League semifinals at the Nou Camp. The Turin side, with Edgar Davids sent off, looked to have their work cut as the game went into extra time but Buffon produced two brilliant reflex saves to keep Barca out. Marcelo Zalayeta then snatched a 114th-minute winner to give Juventus their first win in Spain for 33 years.

Moment to forget: Buffon had a shaky start to life at Juventus' Stadio Delle Alpi, although it was perhaps not surprising given the size of his fee. One mistake, when he dropped the ball at the feet of Chievo's Massimo Marazzini to concede a goal, particularly earned the wrath of coach Marcello Lippi. "We suffered from Gianluigi Buffon's mistake," he said. "It seems incredible that he should make an error when he is the best player in the world."

WHAT THEY SAID

"My target was not to justify selling Patrick Vieira. He was a tremendous player and you never lose a player like Patrick without suffering a bit. But another side was born and is growing slowly."

— Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger after the next generation of Gunners beat Juventus 2-0 in the Champions League quarterfinal first leg at Highbury.

"You have Wayne Rooney, you have Ronaldinho, Patrick Vieira when he was young, people like that. There is not a lot of them. I hope he will have the same career."

— Cesc Fabregas has all the necessary qualities to cope with life as one of the game's top players, according to French striker Thierry Henry.

"Sven is one of the best managers around and his name was bound to come into the equation. I think he would work well. Sven is the obvious one because he will be out of a job. "

— England captain and Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham gives his backing to the prospect of Sven-Goran Eriksson taking over at the Bernabeu.

"Yes, it was handball but it's a part of the game. I don't know how to explain. The ball came to me and I can't do anything but this. If Manchester City scored like that nobody would say anything. Everyone wants to make something bad about Chelsea. It's because we are the best."

— Didier Drogba.

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