Gianluigi Buffon at the 2018 World Cup?

The Juventus and Italy national team goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is still going strong at 38, and is showing absolutely no sign of slowing down.

The Azzurri skipper showed some sharp reflexes when he kept out a late close range effort from Spain defender Gerard Pique in their recent European Championship round of 16 tie in France. The shot, had it gone in, would have brought the scores level and possibly taken the match into extra time. But no, not under Buffon’s watch.

The veteran custodian has expressed his desire to play for the Italian national team at least until the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and on current form, he absolutely deserves to be the man between the sticks for the Azzurri when they begin their quest for a fifth world title.

However, the decorated goalkeeper’s impressive trophy cabinet isn’t bereft of the biggest international honour. Buffon was an integral and instrumental member of the 2006 Italian side that went on to win the World Cup after defeating France in a penalty shootout in the final in Germany.

That team, like most Italian teams, was built around an exemplary defence – with Fabio Cannavaro in the form of his career that later won him a Ballon d’Or. They conceded just two goals through the course of the World Cup campaign. The first of which was an own goal by Christian Zaccardo against the United States in a 1-1 draw during the group stage, while the second was a penalty converted by Zinedine Zidane in the final.

Buffon has been part of five World Cups so far – a record he shares with Antonio Carbajal of Mexico and Germany legend Lothar Matthaus. The goalkeeper got his first taste of World Cup in 1998 in France, where the then 20-year-old was an unused substitute as Gianluca Pagliuca took up the goalkeeping duties.

However, four years later Buffon was the number 1 for the Italian national team in South Korea and Japan. The Italians went out of the tournament in the round of 16 following their loss to the hosts South Korea. The match was marred with a slew of controversial refereeing decisions that led to the early exit for the Azzurri.

In 2006, Buffon’s international career reached its apotheosis as Italy won their fourth world title with a series of outstanding displays, especially in the knockout stages. Their semi-final clash against Germany was a special game. The two sides remained locked at 0-0 until the 119th minute when Andrea Pirlo played one of his greatest passes which Fabio Grosso converted with a fantastic shot and embarked on a celebration reminiscent of Marco Tardelli’s jubilation in the 1982 World Cup final against the same opponents.

Buffon collected the Lev Yashin award for being the best goalkeeper at the tournament.

The 2010 World Cup proved to be a disaster for the Azzurri. The 2006 World Cup winning manager, Marcelo Lippi was brought in before the tournament began in South Africa but he couldn’t repeat the heroics of Germany as Italy crashed out in the first round without winning any of their three games.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil followed a similar pattern to 2010 and Italy again failed to progress past the group stage after registering only one win from their three group stage fixtures.

Will 2018 World Cup see Buffon emulate the feat of his compatriot Dino Zoff and bow out of the international stage as a world champion at 40? Time will tell.

2018 FIFA World Cup contenders – Italy

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The Italy national team have been world champions on four occasions. They were the first team to win back-to-back world titles when they triumphed in 1934 and 1938 under the stewardship of Vottorio Pozzo. Their third title came after a long wait of 44 years, when they won in Spain in 1982 and their last title was under the managerial reign of Marcello Lippi in 2006 in Germany.

The Italians have been one of the leading lights in world football and are amongst the greatest sides of the beautiful game. They are only behind Brazil and tied with Germany with four World Cups apiece, underlying their prominence in world football.

However, after their triumphant run in 2006, where their defence proved to be hard to breach, they have found it difficult to repeat the same performance in the subsequent tournaments.

In the 2010 World Cup, they were again led by Lippi after things didn’t go according to plan under Roberto Donadoni, who came in place for Lippi after the success in Germany. However, the former Sampdoria defender failed to replicate the success of 2006 and his team bowed out of the tournament in the group stage after going winless in their three games – a spectacular failure for a team that were champions four years ago.

Italy played out successive 1-1 draws against Paraguay and New Zealand and lost 3-2 to Slovakia in their final group game to crash out with a tally of two points from their three games. They finished bottom of their group.

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At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Italians were led by Cesare Prandelli and started their campaign brightly with a 2-1 defeat of the England national team. But two successive 1-0 losses to Costa Rica and Uruguay respectively saw them exit the tournament at the group stage for a second successive World Cup.

The Azzurri have done well in the 2016 European Championship qualifying, and have topped their group after going unbeaten in their ten games – seven wins and three draws. They are being led by an authoritative figure in Antonio Conte and have looked stronger then they have done in their past two World Cup campaigns.

Conte was previously at the helm of Juventus and led the team to three successive title winning campaigns, while playing attacking and attracting brand of football. His authoritative nature – an essential attribute for a manager at the highest level – and success as both a player and manager commands from his players.

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The team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia will see Gianluigi Buffon in goal. The Juventus and the national team captain keeps going strong at the age of 37 and has made it clear of his intentions to play in Russia.

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In defence, they will be led by Giorgio Chiellini, who at the age of 34 in three year’s time, will be among the senior statesmen in the team. He will be ably supported by his club team-mate Leonardo Bonucci. Matteo Darmian, Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli are other players expected to vie for a spot in defence.

Alessandro Florenzi, Andrea Bertolacci, Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti are expected to be in midfield, while it remains to be seen if Andrea Pirlo, who still hasn’t retired remains in the reckoning for the tournament in Russia.

Graziano Pelle is currently the leading forward for the Italians, while Simone Zaza and Stephan El Shaarawy have been on the fringes of the national team. Mario Balotelli hasn’t featured in Conte’s plans and may find it difficult to break into his team for the 2018 World Cup.